The dark side of philanthropy

In March last year, The Guardian reported that executives from fossil fuel companies had offices at American universities like MIT and Princeton and were also giving lectures wearing attire that made them look convincingly like professors at those universities—complete with a university ID badge. The newspaper noted, “At MIT, Exxon is provided office space through its funding of the MIT Energy Initiative research collaboration.”

We can all agree that research should be independent and unbiased, unaffected by the people funding it. But, like that of its predecessors—cigarettes and sugar—the patronage of fossil fuel companies is an obvious red flag. What about less suspicious entities? What about funding from seemingly “good” sources?

A new book by Tim Schwab examines what he calls the “The Bill Gates problem”, looking into how the Gates foundation’s philanthropy—pledging nearly $80 billion towards improving healthcare, alleviating poverty and more—might also be steering research to favour results that paint the organisation and its titular philanthropists in an especially good light.

Mr Schwab is ruthless as a recent report in Nature outlines. He states that “by promoting interventions associated with the technological processes of extraction, concentration and accumulation that underpinned his own corporate success, Gates helps to tilt the playing field.” He points out to Bill Gates pursuing “a charitable monopoly similar to the one he built in the corporate world” and that “concentrated power can manufacture ‘success’ by skewing news coverage, absorbing peers and neutralizing oversight.”

But if Mr Gates has a hidden agenda, at what cost does it come? Tim Schwab has a few compelling arguments here. The Gates foundation’s emphasis on “‘accelerating’ innovations and ‘scaling up’ technologies”, says Mr Schwab, “obscures real-world uncertainties and complexities, and ignores the costs of lost opportunities. His argument is that if Mr Gates simply pays the tax he is due instead of spending on causes he deems worthy—and saving tax in the process—the government will have much more money to deal with many more causes, reach many more people, and tackle much “less ‘glamorous’ yet serious scourges, such as dirty water, air pollution or poor housing conditions”.

Moreover, the book points out to “Bill chill” which Mr Schwab describes as follows: “By micromanaging research and dictating methods of analysis, the foundation effectively forces scientists to go down one path — towards the results and conclusions that the charity might prefer.” This is concerning to say the least.

Unfortunately, like any ethical concern, this is not all black-and-white. There is no doubt rich philanthropists are driven by tax savings to philanthropy. That was the whole point of offering tax savings in the first place. But where does tax savings cross a line resulting in inefficient use of funds that—simply because of their enormity—appears misleadingly effective to people. Does fashionable altruism come at a price?

It is important to recognise that conflicts of interest can arise when funding sources expect some say in fund usage. The most obvious solution to this is to establish guidelines before funding, but this can both discourage the funder and make things tougher for the researcher. But if organisations like the Gates foundation want to help society genuinely, they should have a fully independent and rotating body of academics and industry experts deciding where their funds go. Before we can deal with the ill effects of AI, we will have to deal with those of a much older adversary: capital.

You just read issue #20 of Confluence. If you liked it, there is more. New issues are sent out roughly every fortnight. Please consider subscribing to this newsletter.