Following the revelations, prosecution, and subsequent death of former billionaire Jeffrey Epstein, relating to his incredibly sinister history of sexual exploitation and trafficking of minors, and the multitude of high-profile names implicated in the countless and ongoing allegations, my own community — the quantum computing academic community — has even found itself being drawn in, via the research donations given to prominent MIT Professor Seth Lloyd by Jeffrey Epstein.
For those who don’t know, Seth is an extremely prolific and influential figure in our field, who has made a beyond-staggering academic contribution to our area of research.
Although there hasn’t been any suggestion (to my knowledge) that Seth was in any way involved in or supported Epstein’s sexual depravity, following the revelations that he had accepted donations from Epstein to fund his research, who is currently on paid leave, many are calling for him to be dismissed from MIT outright for his lack of judgement in accepting these donations, including student-led protests against him.
I have no knowledge whatsoever of the nature of the personal relationship between the two, what they talked about when Seth visited Epstein in jail, or anything remotely along those lines. I want to avoid all of that altogether, because I’m simply not in a position to have an opinion on it, less so to express one.
I don’t personally know Seth very well, having only ever socialised with him on a few occasions at conferences overseas (of course, I know his academic work very well). Needless to say, I never knew Epstein at all. So none of this should be interpreted as some kind of underhanded attempt to ‘stand up for a mate’, or anything of the sort. There are no partiality issues at play here.
Having said this, what I want to raise is (in my mind) a very glaring moral equivalence between Seth’s actions and something that is, moralistically, highly comparable, which people in our research community engage in all the time (and to be clear, I am no exception to this) — accepting money from major international defence contractors, where in many instances it is very well known they knowingly provide material support for war crimes and other crimes against humanity at a global scale, engage in war profiteering, and use their immense wealth to engage in extensive political lobbying to forever promote the expansion of this self-reinforcing agenda of permanent armed conflict.
They also happen to dish out tons of cash to researchers in forefront scientific areas, such as ours.
I recall the first time I accepted a university position directly funded by a major international defence contractor (they financed my entire salary at the time). I was extremely aware of their highly morally questionable history. Upon being offered the position, a point in my life at which I had few other career options, I genuinely emotionally and morally struggled with myself in ways I never had before (to the point of falling into a prolonged state of deep depression upon making the decision to accept it), and internally debated with myself about it for quite some time before coming to terms with it via the following conclusion:
So long as the research I am conducting using their money is open research, accessible to all, and not in any way kept secret for the select benefit of the financiers, then every dollar I accept from them is a dollar less spent on raining down missiles on some impoverished country, under illegal military assault or occupation. Surely it’s far better for me to take their cash and use it to advance science for the benefit of all, than let it contribute to rolling the next cruise missile off the production line?
I’ve thought about it a lot since, and I am still in retrospect very comfortable with the above moral justification, and would be open to accepting further such cash contributions from similar entities, assuming the caveats and conditions stated above remained in place.
Without having any special inside knowledge of the Lloyd vs Epstein case, what is clear to me is that there seems to be a significant moral equivalence between these two scenarios. As far as I’m aware (and do correct me if I’m wrong), all research conducted by Seth using Epstein’s money was openly-published scientific research, where the funding source (Epstein) was acknowledged accordingly for financial support (as is the expected scientific norm, in the same way that defence contractors are acknowledged accordingly).
What I’m interested in hearing from those in academia (or outside for that matter), who receive money, directly or indirectly, from highly morally questionable defence sources (which is most of us at some point or another in our careers as quantum computer scientists), is what is fundamentally different between accepting money from sex criminals as opposed to war criminals, provided that the research is scientifically open, for all to access, and does not preferentially benefit the financier in any way?
One could indeed go further by pointing out that those accepting research funds from defence contractors knowingly engage in the following:
- Accepting money from organisations known to promote and contribute to illegal wars.
- Enhancing their reputation via the required funding source acknowledgements in published work.
- Developing science and technology that may be of direct material benefit to their efforts.
- Enhancing their networking and influence potential, via the provision of direct high-level access to upper university leadership.
- Reporting on the latest scientific advancements, providing them with the intelligence to project a potential competitive edge.
- Recognition within the academic community as the ‘go-to people’ to seek partnerships when major developments are made.
- In some instances, the organisations provide direct guidance as to the nature of the research being undertaken (in others there are very few strings attached).
In the case of donations sourced from a private individual, much of this does not apply. Certainly, networking ability and reputational enhancement may be of benefit. Direct scientific and technological developments are highly unlikely to be — certainly not in any manner that would foreseeably benefit the depraved acts of someone like Epstein.
The second issue — that of Seth visiting Epstein in jail following his initial conviction — is one where I believe we should all be extremely ethically mindful of what the nature of that visit might have entailed. Were a friend of mine to end up in jail, for whatever reason, I’d almost certainly pay them a visit. That would not automatically imply that the visit was a tacit statement of endorsement — it could very well be entirely the opposite. Speaking to someone needn’t at all imply it be positive, pleasant or supportive in nature. This is something that presumably none of us are in a position to pass full judgement on, based on lack of information. That’s not to say I don’t absolutely recognise that making such a visit at all brings with it enormous potential for a complete PR disaster (clearly that’s exactly what followed).
I want to be absolutely clear that I’m not attempting to morally absolve or implicate anyone (Seth Lloyd, MIT, myself, my colleagues, our industry, nor the academic community at large), nor take sides. Rather, what I would like to promote is consistency in the way we view such issues, from a humanist perspective, both within academia and beyond, and hear sound and consistent arguments as to why Seth Lloyd’s decision to accept research funding from a sex criminal is inherently different to (or indeed worse than) the far more common, and accepted, practise of accepting research money from known war criminals and war profiteers (which most in my industry are guilty of — especially those at the top).
In terms of the way in which I have personally morally justified accepting money (under appropriate constraints) from war profiteers, why should a similar moral justification not apply more generally, for example to the scenario presently involving Seth Lloyd?
If Lloyd is to lose his job for having used the money from a known sex criminal for the purposes of open scientific research, should the rest of us also lose ours for accepting money derived from war profiteers, who support the violation of international law, knowingly enable war crimes, and other crimes against humanity?
Frankly, those of us who have, have far more to answer for. And I, like most, am one of them.
Nb: I realise that writing anything whatsoever on this particular topic at the present moment is incredibly dangerous territory to wade into. Given the nature of the crimes committed by Epstein, any discussion of this topic has tremendous potential to cause enormous hurt to countless people. I really do want to make this clear, and I mean this as genuinely as I possibly can, that in writing this the absolute last thing I want to do is come across as trivialising the depravity of Epstein, or turning a blind eye to it. For very personal reasons, the crimes Epstein committed are ones that are deeply emotionally upsetting to me. If any reader interprets this post as dismissive or trivialising in tone, let me assure you that’s not at all what was intended. My intention is very different to that — depraved sex criminals aren’t the only criminals in the world, and if we are to take a strong moral stance against criminal depravity, and ensure that scientific research funding is sparkling clean, it should be applied in a self-consistent and uniform manner. To all the victims of Epstein, and those like him, you have my unwavering support.
In Australia, call Lifeline (13 11 14) if these issues affect you. Similar free and confidential services are available in many other jurisdictions around the world.
Thank you for your invitation to review this manuscript for your journal. Unfortunately, I must decline the invitation given that, as a matter of principle, I do not support or endorse the activities of for-profit scientific journals.
The scientific community has previously offered this industry, free of charge:
- Conducting all scientific research.
- Writing all scientific manuscripts.
- Acting voluntarily in editorial roles.
- Performing all refereeing.
- (i.e the entire workload of your organisation, other than hosting the website on which you serve the PDFs).
In exchange, we receive:
- Massive journal subscription fees.
- Article download fees.
- Article publication fees.
- Intimidation tactics employed against us when we prefer not to be a part of it.
- Anti-competitive and financially predatory distribution tactics.
- Institutionalised mandates for the above.
This is not a symbiotic relationship, but a parasitic one, for the larger part financed by the taxpayer, who should rather be financing our research. I can no longer endorse this one-sided relationship, in which for-profit journals effectively tax scientific research, to the tune of billions of dollars annually, often using coercive and intimidatory sales tactics, whilst providing very little or no value in return. This capital is best spent on what it was intended for — scientific research for the benefit of humankind — training students, hiring research staff, financing equipment, travel and infrastructure — to which your organisation contributes nothing whatsoever other than to extort value.
In addition to declining this offer, please for future reference:
- Remove my name from your referee database.
- Immediately cease and desist from using intimidatory tactics when I decline to volunteer my labour (which is of very high value) to your pursuit of profit (in exchange for nothing).
- Hassling me for failing to voluntarily contribute my labour to your revenue-raising is tantamount to harassment and extortion.
- Do not request that I voluntarily act as your journal editor.
- Do not work in cahoots with national scientific funding agencies to enforce your own vendor lock in, thereby effectively mandating your own services, which are in fact of very little or no value whatsoever. This in an indirect form of taxation upon scientific research, which I have no interest in paying, and which we should be expected or forced to.
- I do not intend personally to submit any further manuscripts to your journal for consideration (if my co-authors do, I won’t stand in their way).
Personal note to the Editor: this should not be construed as a personal attack against you, who I absolutely respect, but rather against the industry which is exploiting you in a slave-like work relationship, whilst using you as a conduit to engage me for the same purpose. I write this as an act of solidarity with you, not as a personal attack against you.
We advance human knowledge for the benefit of humanity, and provide it as a gift for all.
(This post may be freely linked to, reused, or modified without acknowledgement)
I’m pleased and honoured to announce that I have just been awarded a prestigious ARC Future Fellowship to conduct a 4 year project into quantum networking and encrypted quantum computation. I will be based at the University of Technology Sydney, where I have received tenure as a Senior Lecturer. Ad astra.
Most countries use negative feedback to discourage speeding. Here’s an interesting alternative based on using positive feedback to encourage slower driving. Apparently it’s been highly effective. I wonder whether such a model could be used in other areas to encourage social responsibility.
DNA sequencing is a field in molecular biology with uses ranging from understanding the genetic basis for cancer, to diagnosing genetic predispositions, to understanding the basic way in which cells function at the molecular level. I recently joined the International Cancer Genome Consortium (ICGC), where we aim to catalogue the genetic makeup of as many different cancer types as possible. To do this we must employ sequencing technologies which allow genomes to be experimentally determined. When the Human Genome Project first sequenced the entire human genome, they employed a technique called Sanger sequencing, which essentially steps through every nucleotide, one after another, and determines whether it is an A, C, G or T – the four nucleotide types from which DNA sequences are constructed.
Unfortunately the Sanger approach is both slow and costly. The Human Genome Project cost around $3b, took many years, and employed hundreds of scientists. With technological improvements this could now be done for several million dollars in a fraction of the time. However, this approach is still too costly to sequence 100’s or 1000’s of unique genomes.
Recently a different approach has emerged, high throughput sequencing technologies, which allow an entire human genome to be sequenced for $10,000, by a couple of scientists, in under a week. As technology improves it probably isn’t unrealistic to expect that in the coming decade this could be done for merely hundreds of dollars. Several competing high throughput technologies have emerged, but they all operate in a similar fashion. Rather than sequencing an entire DNA strand from start to finish, they fragment the DNA into millions of small pieces, called ‘reads’, which are on the order of 50 nucleotides in length. Each of these fragments is independently sequenced, and can be sequenced in parallel, which can be done with a fraction of the time and cost compared to traditional Sanger sequencing.
So now we’ve sequenced millions of tiny fragments – what do we do with them? There are two approaches to utilizing this data. The first approach is to map the fragments to a reference genome. Suppose we have the entire human genome, thanks to the Human Genome Project, then we can take each read and look at where is maximally overlaps with the reference. By looking at where the mapped reads sit on the reference genome we can see what the differences are. For example a read might differ from its mapped location on the reference by a few nucleotides. These differing nucleotides are called Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms, or SNPs (pronounced ‘snips’), and tell us what’s different between you and me. The SNPs, which constitute only a tiny fraction of the genome, give us all sorts of useful information, like predispositions, mutations and genetic traits. The second approach to utilizing reads is to attempt ‘de novo assembly’. Here, we take all the reads and look at how they overlap with one another, as opposed to how they overlap with a reference. So if the last few nucleotides of one read overlap with the first few of another, then we can conclude that those pieces fit together. We are essentially left with a huge jigsaw puzzle that we must piece together. The advantage of this approach is that it does not require a reference, so it can be used to sequence large chunks of a genome in the absence of any a priori information about the genome. Both of these approaches are useful. Mapping is useful when we have a reference genome to compare against, while de novo assembly is useful when we don’t.
Unfortunately both these approaches have some limitations. In particular, sequenced data from present day sequencing technologies have quite high error rates. This makes it more difficult to map a read against a reference, and it also makes it more difficult to perform de novo assembly since the pieces in the puzzle don’t always fit together. So error detection and correction mechanisms have to be employed. Having said that, there are significant improvements being made to current high throughput technologies which are incrementally reducing error rates and increasing throughput, which gives us more pieces in the puzzle, with lower error rates, and therefore a higher likelihood of finding matching pieces.
The future of DNA sequencing is looking very promising. We can do in a week what previously took years, and we can do it with many orders of magnitude reduction in cost. As this technology becomes more widespread I’m sure that economies of scale and technological improvements will continue to put downward pressure on cost and upward pressure on throughput and data quality.
Of course, the accessability of this technology carries with it some significant moral dilemas. Who should be allowed access to this kind of technology? Employers? Health insurance companies? Life insurance agencies? Already there are private companies like 23&me which allow a person’s SNPs to be sequenced for a few hundred dollars, revealing a person’s predisposition to physical and mental illnesses, racial background, likelihood of being intelligent, or any number of other traits that an unscrupulous employer might be interested in. There is enormous potential for misuse, which in my mind policy makers should consider addressing sooner rather than later.