The upper echelons of academic science continued to be rattled this week amid revelations that many prominent researchers accepted funding from, or were otherwise friendly with, wealthy financier Jeffrey Epstein, the convicted pedophile and accused sex trafficker who hung himself in a New York City jail cell earlier this month.
Buzzfeed News compiled a who’s who of physicists, biologists, neuroscientists, and other researchers who benefitted, in large and small ways, from Epstein’s pet interests in science. “Some say they are sorry,” Buzzfeed reported. “Others didn’t comment.” Among those identified were the mathematical biologist Martin Nowak, MIT professor of mechanical engineering Seth Lloyd, and “celebrity physicist” Lawrence Krauss.
Also on the list: MIT’s Joichi Ito, the director of the institute’s Media Lab who came under fire last week when The Boston Globe revealed Ito’s willingness to accept substantial funding from Epstein even after he was convicted of soliciting a minor for prostitution in 2008. Ito published a lengthy apology, but at least one high-profile MIT colleague, digital media scholar Ethan Zuckerman, declared that he would be quitting the Media Lab in response.
The sprawling connections between Epstein and the nation’s intellectual and scientific elite — the full extent of which may still be ripe for exposure, Buzzfeed suggested — raised questions not just about individual judgment (Harvard biochemist George Church chalked it up to “nerd tunnel vision” in early August), but the enduring exclusivity and chauvinism of power networks writ large. “After the revelations of abuse and rape,” Adam Rogers wrote in Wired magazine this week, “the most frightening thing the Epstein connections show is the impregnable, hermetic way class and power work in America.”
For its part, MIT announced plans on August 22 to donate a sum commensurate with Epstein’s 20 years of largesse to the school to “an appropriate charity that benefits his victims or other victims of sexual abuse.” And on Monday, a chorus of academics issued a public statement of support for the embattled Ito. That was met on Thursday by an essay from MIT graduate student and Media Lab researcher Arwa Mboya, who argued that whatever Ito’s virtues and accomplishments, the Lab’s reputation for moral leadership within the community had been critically wounded.
“Joi Ito,” Mboya wrote, “needs to go.”
Also this week:
• Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish activist who sparked a worldwide youth movement for action on climate change, set foot on American soil Wednesday after a two-week sailing journey across the Atlantic. Thunberg and her fellow passengers, including Pierre Casiraghi, the Prince of Monaco, arrived in Manhattan on the Malizia II, a “carbon neutral” racing yacht equipped with electricity-generating solar panels and underwater turbines. The crew occasionally endured rough seas during their journey, including two tropical depressions, which delayed their arrival by a day. The young climate activist has a busy schedule in front of her: She plans to join a climate protest at the United Nations on Friday, attend the United Nations Climate Action Summit later in September, and travel to South America to attend a U.N. climate conference in Chile in December. Asked moments after her arrival if she had a message for President Trump, who has rolled back environmental protections in the U.S. and moved to pull the country out of the Paris Climate accord, Thunberg said: “Listen to the science.” (NPR)
• The Trump administration made moves this week to once again walk back the U.S. government’s authority in protecting the environment. According to The Washington Post, the president told Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue on Wednesday to exempt Alaska’s Tongass National Forest — the world’s largest intact temperate rainforest — from Clinton-era restrictions which bar the construction of roads in 58.5 million acres of undeveloped national forest. An exemption could open 9.5 million acres of Tongass to commercial activities like logging, mining, and energy production. And on Thursday, the Environmental Protection Agency released a proposal for a rollback of regulations mandating oil and gas companies install technology to monitor and quell methane leaks from their equipment at each stage of the process, from wellhead to storage facility, calling these measures “unnecessary and duplicative.” While shorter-lived than carbon dioxide, methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas and an important variable in the calculus to slow anthropogenic climate change. A recent increase in the atmospheric concentration of methane has many scientists worried. While the EPA proposal has been met with enthusiasm from smaller fuel companies and their representative organizations, it has drawn criticism from many of the larger players, including Exxon, Shell, and BP. (The Washington Post)
• Amid international outcry over the destruction caused to the Amazon rainforest by a record number of fires, the Brazilian government has walked back its initial rejection of foreign aid to help fight the blazes. On Tuesday morning, a spokesperson for Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro told CNN that Brazil would not accept the $20 million pledged by international leaders at the G7 summit in France the day before. Later that day, however, Bolsonaro told reporters he would respond to the offer if French President Emmanuel Macron – a vocal proponent of international collaboration to address the fires – withdrew what he considered personal insults and comments dismissing Brazilian sovereignty. (Macron had previously accused Bolsonaro of lying to him about climate commitments during trade negotiations.) Still later on Tuesday, Brazilian presidential spokesman Rego Barros said the country would accept foreign aid, but only if the government was granted complete control over how the money was spent. According to Reuters, an anonymous “diplomatic source” told reporters the Brazilian government had separately accepted $12 million from Britain to fight the fires. Officials have yet to confirm this statement. (Multiple sources)
• The hurricane season’s first major storm, Dorian, is predicted to hit the east coast of Florida on Monday as a dangerous Category 4 hurricane, prompting Florida Governor Ron DeSantis to call a state of emergency and President Trump to cancel a planned overseas trip. The National Hurricane Center warned that while Dorian bypassed Puerto Rico early this week as a lesser storm, “strengthening is forecast” over the next few days as the storm moves across unusually warm waters. But forecasters are uncertain as to the exact landing point, saying that although probability is high for a hit somewhere between Miami and Jacksonville, the storm could yet move farther north — or even unexpectedly south across the tip and into the Gulf of Mexico. Forecasters were hopeful that some of the uncertainty will be resolved by late Friday but emphasized that the target is unlikely to be anywhere but Florida. (CBS News)
• While promoting the release of her new book, “The Vagina Bible,” gynecologist Jen Gunter took to Twitter to criticize the social media platform’s advertising policies. In its paid promotions, her publisher discovered, the word vagina was not allowed to be used. “Not being able to buy an ad because of the word vagina for a book about vaginas is ridiculous,” Gunter tweeted on Tuesday. A Twitter spokesperson has since clarified that some ads for the book were removed in error and that references to sexual organs are indeed permitted by its policies. Still, Undark experienced some issues of its own with Twitter advertising last week when seeking to promote an investigative piece about the dubious and abusive practice of virginity testing in Afghanistan. Three promoted tweets — which included the phrases “virginity testing” and “female sexuality” — were flagged for “inappropriate language,” and follow-up emails failed to clarify what exactly Twitter found objectionable. (Adweek, Undark)
• And finally: An international team of scientists is working to bring the critically-endangered northern white rhino back from the brink of extinction through the use of artificial insemination and surrogacy. The last male northern white rhino, Sudan, died in March 2018 at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. Only two northern white rhinos now remain: Sudan’s daughter Najin and his granddaughter Fatu. Ten eggs were harvested from Najin and Fatu, and seven — three from Najin, four from Fatu — were successfully inseminated with frozen sperm collected from two now-deceased males. The scientists are now waiting to see if an embryo develops. If it grows, the next step is to implant it into a surrogate southern white rhino. “This is a historic day for the future of the northern white rhino and potentially many other endangered species,” Simon Jones, CEO of Helping Rhinos, a conservation charity that helped coordinate the project, wrote in an email to Earther. Jones noted that the findings from this effort, if successful, could be used to help other endangered species, like the Sumatran and Javan rhino in Indonesia. (Earther)