In August 2017, I received an email from publicist Masha Drokova asking whether I wanted to interview her client, Jeffrey Epstein.
“I saw your piece on [President Donald] Trump’s science budget,” she wrote, referring to a story on the president’s proposed massive cuts to research in his 2018 budget request to Congress. “Jeffrey has an interesting perspective on what it will take to fill the gaps. … Would you like to speak with him next week?”
Why would Science talk to a shadowy financier and convicted sex offender? I queried my editors. “How strange,” one said. “Wonder why he is seeking press now?” another asked.
Eventually, we decided I should accept the invitation, on the chance that Epstein would say something newsworthy. And on 8 September 2017, I reached him, via Skype, at his mansion in New York City’s fashionable Upper East Side. (According to federal prosecutors, that is also where Epstein engaged in sex acts with teenage girls during naked massage sessions.)
Epstein began the 80-minute interview by asking me to agree, if we wrote a story based on the interview, not to use any quotes without first getting his permission. “I have lots of detractors,” he said, “so certain things phrased the wrong way could make trouble for you and I.” I agreed to his terms.
Now, 2 years later, a more complete picture of Epstein’s alleged predations has emerged, and last month the disgraced financier hanged himself in jail after being arrested on federal charges of sex trafficking. My editors and I concluded that given Epstein’s death and the intense interest in his support of science, we could quote him in this story. What follows are Epstein’s views on scientific philanthropy and the experiences of a few of the many scientists drawn into his orbit.
“Money I understand”
In the interview, Epstein was by turns modest—“I’m not more than a hobbyist in science”—and boastful—“but money I understand, [and] I’m a pretty good mathematician.” He was eager to discuss his philosophy of giving and how science works. However, some of those views struck me as contradictory, and others were outdated or discredited.
The overarching goal of his philanthropy, he said, was to compensate for “the Trump administration cutting back on pure research.” It seemed like a grandiose claim. Although he repeatedly dodged my requests for specific amounts, his scientific donations over the past 20 years are unlikely to have exceeded a few tens of millions of dollars. That sum pales next to the U.S. government’s annual research budget of $150 billion, and it’s small even compared with the nine- and 10-figure gifts to science from many superwealthy individuals.
I asked who he chooses to fund. “I’m looking for smart people who might have a great idea,” he answered. “I’m making a bet that certain people, not a lot of them, can do great things if they simply can be freed up to think, and freed up from writing grants and having to worry about the necessities of life. Remember, I’m not building a laboratory, so [my money] goes to support them in a nicer way than being on a postdoc salary.”
I asked him how that approach differs from the so-called genius awards from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which gives out 5-year grants of $600,000 and asks nothing in return.
“It’s night and day,” he replied. “If you look at [the MacArthur awards’] origins, there were scientists like [physics Nobel laureate] Murray Gell-Mann on the committee looking for the world’s smartest people. But over the years, big institutions like MacArthur have become politically correct. If you look at their awards in the past 5 years, they’re very concerned with diversity.”
“Now, I’m all for diversity, but I’m for diversity of excellent ideas, not for diversity in the people who receive grants,” Epstein continued. He seemed to view science as something done by a self-perpetuating scientific priesthood that ignored anyone not like themselves.
His next comment was even more retrograde. “Now, [the MacArthur grants] are sort of a good citizen award, for being exemplary citizens, as opposed to for being a great scientist.”
“Something you’re able to tell”
Being “smart” is the sine qua non for Epstein. So how, I wondered, did he go about identifying such budding talent?
One way was to ask teachers. “I talk to lots of professors,” he told me, “and I ask them, ‘How long does it take you to figure out, in a class of 300, who the three smartest kids are?’” he explained. “And usually they’ll say they know by the end of the first class.”
But Epstein also thought that a science writer might do just as well. “OK, Jeff, who would you fund?” he asked me at one point. “You’ve met a lot of interesting people and talked to them. Who stood out?”
I demurred, saying I was a journalist, not a scientist, and that there were many people much more qualified to judge someone’s scientific potential. He responded with flattery.
“I’ve listened to the way you ask questions,” Epstein replied. “You ask good questions. When you interview someone, you must get a sense of whether they are quick, smart, or creative, or all three. … I think that people don’t trust their sense of who’s smart.”
When I refused to take the bait, he abruptly shifted the conversation to animals. “Do you have any pets?” he asked.
I don’t, but I offered up my adult daughter’s menagerie of a dog, a hamster, and several fish. Epstein plowed ahead.
“I’m not sure about the hamster,” he responded. “But if I asked you if your daughter’s dog was smart or not, my guess is that you’d say it was either a smart dog or a dumb dog. … And it wouldn’t be because you’re an expert on dogs. It’s just something that you’re able to tell after a while.”
“Tippy tip of the top”
Epstein said his approach to giving was aimed at achieving scientific breakthroughs. But his view of the current state of innovation was surprisingly gloomy.
“Frankly, Jeff, since the discovery of penicillin [in 1928], there’s been no really remarkable discovery,” he said. “I’ve followed the genome project, and there’s lots of hope. But in terms of a real product, there’s probably nothing that has kept more people alive than penicillin.”
Epstein was quick to distinguish his approach from the path taken by other philanthropists, both dead and alive, many of them with wealth that far exceeded his own. “The [Bill & Melinda] Gates Foundation doesn’t search for smart people,” he asserted. “Bill wants to cure polio. He wants to eliminate poverty. But in terms of coming up with new theories of biology or some new form of mathematics, zero [interest].”
Epstein said he also dispensed with the accountability that typically goes with a grant. “When I’ve given money to a scientist, they’re usually somewhat surprised, and then they say, ‘What type of reports would you like? Is it for a milestone from my next grant?’ And I giggle and say, ‘No, the concept is, you know your field best. Letting people with lots of money have input into what you do doesn’t make any sense to me.’"
Asked whose approach to philanthropy he admired, Epstein said his sole role model was billionaire James Simons. A fellow hedge fund manager and a Ph.D. mathematician, Simons has poured some of his great wealth into a foundation that supports budding mathematicians and math educators. But unlike Simons, Epstein said he felt no obligation to help foster a more scientifically literate population.
“I’m interested in the rarefied peaks,” he said in response to why he hasn’t funded any efforts to improve science education. “I have no insight into that area, zero. Again, I’m trying to reach the smartest of the smart. It’s the same issue in terms of money. My clients are not in any way near the middle, they’re at the tippy tip of the top of the pyramid.”
“Rebels who don’t fit in”
The researchers Epstein chose to support, it was becoming clear, fit the old stereotype of scientists whose brilliance makes them social outcasts. “The MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] Media Lab is a good example,” he said. (The Cambridge-based university has launched an independent investigation into what its president called the “deeply disturbing” relationship between Epstein and the lab, whose director, Joi Ito, resigned following media reports that Epstein had invested in his private companies as well as donating to the lab.)
“I would say 25% of the kids there are autistic, on the spectrum,” Epstein opined. “They don’t really work in groups. They’re not taking classes. They’re not giving teaching assignments. They don’t have lots to do, they’re there to think.”
Those traits appealed to Epstein on two levels. “It’s my natural bent to move toward the maverick and rebels who don’t fit in,” he noted. “They were probably overlooked [in school]. They were definitely never class president.” Such outsiders, in Epstein’s opinion, are also less likely to kowtow to the scientific establishment, which he regarded as inherently conservative.
“The older guys usually just tell you what doesn’t work,” he asserted. “And the referees of peer-reviewed journals have also become politically sensitive. Everybody knows who the reviewer is that has turned them down because he’s been asking the same question any number of times.”
Yet Epstein readily admitted to asking prominent members of the scientific establishment to assess the potential contribution of these so-called outcasts.
“So, I had Jim Watson to the house, and I asked Watson, what does he think about this idea,” a proposal to study how the cellular mechanisms of plants might be relevant to human cancer. Watson is a Nobel laureate and co-discoverer of the structure of DNA. “Likewise with [Noam] Chomsky on artificial intelligence,” he said, referring to one of the pioneers in the field.
In fact, Epstein expressed great respect for the opinions of these elder statesmen. “It’s funny to watch Noam Chomsky rip apart these young boys who talk about having a thinking machine,” Epstein noted. “He takes out a dagger and slices them, very kindly, into little shreds.”
A notorious name dropper, Epstein clearly savored his access to scientific superstars. “As you might know, I was very close to Marvin Minsky for quite a long time [and] I funded some of Marvin’s projects,” he said about one of the founders of artificial intelligence, a longtime MIT professor who died in 2016. “And Marvin told me there was this young guy in Germany who had a very unique idea about artificial intelligence.”
Or this: “So I was just with Roger Penrose [a distinguished theoretical physicist who leads an eponymic institute in San Diego, California]. And Roger told me about an Indian woman physicist who has come up with the idea of using a Bose-Einstein condensate [a collection of supercooled atoms] to find gravitational waves.”
“I let them decide”
Epstein said he usually gave out his money anonymously because he had no interest in publicity and because he understood that his notoriety might be a burden to grantees. “It’s not really a secret, but it’s private,” he explained about his gifts. “I let them decide. If you want to tell people you got it from me, fine. If you prefer not to, for your own personal reasons, that’s OK, too.”
I wondered how the recipients saw it. The researcher Minsky had flagged for Epstein, Joscha Bach, declined repeated requests from me to discuss his ties to Epstein. But a 2018 paper on his theory of consciousness acknowledges support from the Jeffrey Epstein Foundation, and Bach has been listed in media tallies of Epstein grantees.
Bach represents the type of scientist for whom Epstein claimed his money could make a big difference. “You don’t have to think about money for the next 5 years,” Epstein said he told Bach as the researcher prepared to move to MIT’s Media Lab in 2014. (Epstein says Minsky helped arrange the appointment.)
Two years later, Bach moved to Harvard University’s program for evolutionary dynamics, which was founded by Martin Nowak, another beneficiary of Epstein’s philanthropy. In February, Bach left Harvard and became vice president of research at the AI Foundation, based in San Francisco, California.
For Seth Lloyd, a self-described quantum engineer, taking Epstein’s money initially seemed a no-brainer. Already a tenured MIT professor when he met Epstein in 2004 at a party hosted by his literary agent, John Brockman, Lloyd was charmed by Epstein during several subsequent meetings at Harvard. “Mr. Epstein offered me a grant to do research, which I accepted,” Lloyd wrote in an email after declining to be interviewed. “He seemed to like my work on ideas of information and computation being the fundamental substrate of the universe.” Lloyd received additional donations from Epstein in 2012 and 2017 to support his MIT lab. “There are lots of topics in this field that were not funded by other grants,” Lloyd notes. (Last week, MIT President Rafael Reif acknowledged signing a thank you letter sent to Epstein after his 2012 donation.)
Last month, however, Lloyd publicly addressed the ethical issues involved with taking Epstein’s money. In a 22 August blog post titled “I am writing to apologize to Jeffrey Epstein’s victims,” Lloyd related how “the job of a scientist is to look for truth, and the job of a teacher is to help people to empower themselves. I failed to do my job on both counts.”
“It would be very tempting”
Ivette Fuentes is the physicist whose work on detecting gravitational waves Penrose described to Epstein. But unlike Bach and Lloyd, Fuentes says Epstein’s name immediately raised a red flag. (For the record, Fuentes grew up in Mexico, not India, and did her Ph.D. at Imperial College London.)
Penrose and Epstein had met at a June 2017 conference on the science of consciousness in San Diego. “Although the topic [of consciousness] is not what I do, when I saw the list of speakers and was offered a plenary talk, I decided that it would be a good thing for me and a good audience to hear about my experiment,” says Fuentes, a professor at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom whose work is supported by the Penrose Institute.
Shortly after returning home, Fuentes says, she and Penrose had a conversation. “Would I be interested in receiving funding from a wealthy man who had also been convicted of a sex offense?” Fuentes recalls Penrose asking her.
Fuentes immediately said no, citing ethical objections, and quickly forgot about the conversation. But 2 months ago, after reading that Epstein had been arrested, she called Penrose. “Was it Epstein?” she asked him. “And he said, ‘Yes, I think it was.’ And I said, ‘Oh God.’”
Fuentes is hoping to get a few million dollars from a European funding agency to build a prototype of her project, a room-size version of an existing facility, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, that has cost the U.S. National Science Foundation more than $1 billion. Epstein’s money might have accelerated her work, but that was never an option for her.
“The dream of my life is to build a gravitational-wave detector, and have it work,” she says. “So, if someone were to say to me, ‘I’ll give you the money to make your dream come true,’ it would be very tempting to say yes.”
“But then you have your ethical standards. Even if you lose some opportunities, [saying no] is the right thing to do. … What Epstein has taught me is how important it is to do that.”