Scratch a scientific or academic leader you’re likely to find a big ego — who else would rise to the top? — and a worried soul. He or she is worried about getting the right people and technology and money to keep moving toward an outcome that will affirm their judgment, effort, and leadership.
In the chase for funding, superrich individuals can seem like a source of easy money. Government agencies, corporations, and prestigious foundation generally put a heavy burden on grant-seekers in the form of applications, competitions, and audits. Wealthy individuals may not demand so much effort, but their money still comes at a cost. Whether they say it or not, they want to associate themselves with great institutions and thereby enhance their own reputations.
The ongoing scandal over disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein’s relationship with scientists and universities has revealed the price that is sometimes attached to the easy money. As Joi Ito of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab resigned Saturday over his links to Epstein, he became the leading figure in a story of ordinary human vanity set in extraordinary places.
As the central character in this drama, Epstein was a famously wealthy man with an infamously grotesque record as a convicted sex offender. After serving time in jail Epstein resumed a high-flying life that involved attachments to the famous and powerful, among them scientists he hosted at his various mansions. Arrested on new changes related to his habit of recruiting young women and girls for sex, he committed suicide in his jail cell, leaving behind countless victims and a gigantic mess of lawsuits and scandal.
Epstein’s crimes were no secret and his flaws were obvious to anyone inclined to notice. Often accompanied by young women who massaged him as he held court, Epstein nicknamed one of his planes the Lolita Express and decorated his Manhattan mansion with displays of prosthetic breasts and photos of celebrities who were caught-up in sex scandals. Among the paintings was one of Bill Clinton in a blue dress and red heels.
Somehow, Ito ignored all that could be learned about Epstein with a simple Google search and found it okay to accept his $525,000 gift to the Media Lab. Ito also took $1.2 million from Epstein as an investment in a fund Ito controlled. Worse, he and others at MIT conspired to hide the source of the money because Epstein was officially banned as a university donor.
E-mails about Ito’s scheme, which have been published by The New Yorker, show he pushed back when others at the lab questioned Epstein’s involvement. “He’s really fascinating,” Ito replied to one concerned colleague. “Would you like to meet him?” When Epstein visited the Media Lab, accompanied by two young Eastern European women, a staffer at the lab offered them help them if they were not with Epstein by choice.
In a letter regarding the Media Lab crisis, MIT President L. Rafael Reif has announced an effort to improve procedures so they “fully reflect MITs values.” This effort should begin with the assumption that everything leading up to the scandal did reflect something about MITs values and the values of society in which too often mesmerizing hype is accepted as a substitute for achievement and character.
With his private aircraft, fancy friends, and private island, Jeffrey Epstein was able to bring a startling number of seemingly intelligent people into his orbit. The attendees at one of his gatherings, which occurred after Epstein was imprisoned for sex crimes, included Gerald Sussman of MIT, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Murray Gell-Mann, cognitive scientist Christof Koch of the California Institute of Technology and Catherine Mohr of Stanford.
Often pictured wearing university-branded clothes, Epstein was especially keen on associating himself with Harvard, where he was also a donor. Last month George Church, a Harvard biologist, apologized for “poor awareness and judgment” in associating with him. In a statement to the science and medicine journal STAT News (a sister publication of the Globe), he said, “There should have been more conversations about, should we be doing this, should we be helping this guy.” Church blamed, in part, “nerd tunnel vision,” He said he was flattered by those who inquired about his work. And “if it’s a rich person, that’s cool.”
What Church suggests with his reference to Epstein’s wealth is the corrupting power of money and, by extension celebrity, in a culture where both are glorified as supremely worthy achievements. Evidence of Joi Ito’s own interests in wealth and fame is obvious in the bio he posts on his website Joi.Ito.com. This 412-word document notes no scientific achievements but refers to his associations with prestigious organizations such as the MacArthur Foundation and his work as a TV show host, businessman, and investor. Although he says, “I’m passionate about learning new things, spending time with interesting people and the future of art, science, design and engineering,” he is not an artist, scientist, designer, or engineer.
By association, promotion, and other forms of razzle-dazzle, Ito became head of MIT’s Media Lab years before he received his doctorate in media and governance. He is an engaging figure, and in this he had something else in common with Epstein, whose gift for schmooze was legendary. Ito’s charisma comes across in the videos you can find of him online. In a TED Talk, for example, he announces that “the traditional rules we have for institutions don’t work anymore” and “education is what people do to you and learning is what you do to yourself.” He denigrates “stodgy institutions,” dismisses the value of planning and preparation and celebrates connection and focus on the present in order to become a “now-ist.”
Ito definitely did something to himself by connecting with Jeffrey Epstein and, guided by his ego-centric focus on the present, trying to cover up his donations. Ito also imposed an education on MIT, which is reeling from the effects of putting the Media Lab into the hands of someone who was better at attracting attention than exercising the kind of judgment that would have protected the reputations of a university that is of enormous value to not just the United States, but to the world.
Reputation is a building block of trust, and in 21st century America trust is in short supply. As measured by the research company Edelman, last year America experienced a 37 percent decline in trust in major institutions. A president who regularly bellows about “Fake News” and calls climate change a “hoax” contributes to the overall skepticism but in general, scientists and university professors have managed to retain public trust. When last measured by Pew Research Center they were among a handful of professions that were trusted by more than 60 percent of Americans.
But as strong as the public support may be, science is not immune from the kind of attacks that can erode public confidence. Years of nonsense from climate change skeptics have sown enough doubt that many politicians are willing to delay action even as sea level rises. Similarly, anti-vaccine activists, who deny long-established science, have spread enough doubt that measles, a deadly disease that was once eradicated, is making a comeback.
Anti-vaxxers and climate change skeptics have tried to insinuate that scientists and medical providers are driven by their own financial interests. The fact that doctors and researchers get paid for their work is, in the eyes of some, evidence of self-dealing. This is nonsense. However, with anti-science activists looking everywhere for signs of corruption, anyone remotely associated with a major research institution should be on guard. The Epstein-MIT fiasco offers age-old lessons about public trust, the dangers of wealth and fame, and the value of certain stodgy institutions.
Michael D’Antonio’s latest book is “The Truth About Trump.’’