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Thursday, 31 March 2011

How Clean is your Funding? And does it matter?

This is something I wanted to post on a couple of weeks ago, then left, and then thought that with the whole AHRC business rumbling on it still seemed relevant.  Maybe more so.  It concerns the ethics involved in accepting research funding.  I am going to argue that in the current climate especially academics should accept, pragmatically, any research funding, as long as there are no strings attached, regardless of the ethical or political business history of the donor.

Derrida once said that only the unforgivable could truly be forgiven.(1)  It is a classic move in later Derridian thought.  What he meant was that if you set terms on forgiveness, such as repentance,(2) then the act of forgiveness is tarnished; it ceases to be a genuine act of forgiveness.  He went on to concede that such an attitude might not always be practical in everyday life, but that our thinking about forgiveness should be inflected by this point.  And, in my view, he was, as he so often was, correct.(3)

This seems relevant to me because in a recent (10 March) edition of the Higher there was this piece by none other than Richard Evans, Regius Professor of History at Cambridge (in other words they don't come any higher) entitled 'Tainted Money?'.  This article stemmed from the recent decision by Oxford University that it was satisfied by the findings of a commission looking into the alleged links between the Toepfer Foundation and the Nazi past.  Essentially the problem (I hope I have this right) was that it had been argued that Oxford should sever all links with the foundation on the grounds that it eponymous founder was a Nazi supporter who had profited from the Holocaust.

The commission found that this was not the case and was even happy with the foundation keeping Toepfer's name.  Oxford, as I mentioned, declared that this was acceptable to them and that thus the Hanseatic scholarships should remain in place.  Evans' piece defends this, and I agree with him.  Richard Evans and I have not always had the happiest personal relationship(4) but I do have very high regard for him as an archival historian (I would do even if he weren't the Regius Professor; the fact that he is the Regius Professor makes whether or not I have any regard for his work pretty much irrelevant!), and - probably more importantly - higher regard still for his work in putting historical skills to practical social and political use in refuting holocaust deniers and the like, something which won't surprise regular readers of H.o.t.E. (of which gratifyingly there seem to be a few).  But here I think that, although I agree with the conclusion he reaches, he has used the wrong argument.  Well, I say the 'wrong argument'; what I might mean is 'an unconvincing argument that might yet have been the only politically practical one'.  We'll see.

You can read the argument via the link above.  What troubles me about it is not whether it's factually accurate or not (how would I know?); I assume it is.  It is more that if you aren't predisposed to accept the conclusion it is very likely to look like a bit of sophistic hair-splitting.  Toepfer wasn't a Nazi, he was merely a German nationalist with views about the racial links between the 'Anglo-Saxon races', who later employed ex-Nazis.  He didn't profit from the Holocaust; his company just provided materials which the Reich used, and made some money out of this.  And who didn't in wartime Germany?  None of this looks very convincing to me or likely to carry much moral or ethical conviction.  I suspect that people like Michael Pinto-Duschinski, out to find traces of Nazi whitewashing or antisemitism wherever they can, will not be swayed by it.  I also think it might be a mistake to lump things like prizes in with funding and scholarships as I think there might be subtle ethical differences between the two.

So, am I saying then that Oxford shouldn't have accepted this money?  As I said earlier, no I certainly am not.  My argument, which might be unpalatable and politically ineffective (I admit) would be that as long as there are no strings attached to a gift, determining what you use it for or what line you take or what findings you reach, then any gift of money is acceptable.  In other words that a lack of strings attached is more important than the ethical business history of the donor.

I say this because it seems to me that there is very little untainted money out there in the capitalist world.  If you start looking into the business details or investments of just about anyone you'll probably be able to construct a trail that leads to something more than a little unpleasant: war-crimes, arms-dealing, support for repressive regimes, ecological disasters, cover-ups, etc etc.  I shouldn't imagine that any German company doesn't have some link to something that happened under the Nazis; I shouldn't imagine that any of the major Japanese organisations has unstained hands regarding Japan's exploitation of surrounding nations (especially China and Korea) or other nastiness, like the Burma Railway (and unlike Germany, where guilt about the war is practically pathological, Japan has rarely come close to official acknowledgement of what was done in its name, say at Nanking).  A whole string of British businesses will have some link somewhere to an involvement in supporting the apartheid government of South Africa, or in arms deals to dubious regimes, and so on.  How untainted is Russian money, do you think?  And so on.

Of course there will always be something qualitatively specific about the Holocaust that keeps for it a particular place among the obscenities of the past.  That needs to be stated, and remembered.  But it wasn't and isn't, the only such obscenity, even in scale.  Here is something to ponder.  For a long time (I am not sure what the current state of play is) western drugs companies mounted a long and hard-fought challenge to prevent various African countries from manufacturing the medicines that have made AIDS effectively an illness that can be brought under control in the West.  They did this in the name of their profits.  It may be that as many as twenty million Africans will die as a result of this obscene bit of capitalist money-grubbing.  I cannot think of any very convincing reason to say that this is a significantly lesser evil that ought to be treated very differently from the Holocaust in terms of the ethics of accepting money.  Different?  Yes.  Lesser?  I don't know.  And very much more recent, which seems to me to matter in terms of thinking about the origins of money.  But we like our villains to have faces, don't we?(5)  And nicely-tailored uniforms too, if we're honest.  A set of faceless grey-suited corporate directors doesn't fit the bill.  And, I ask in a whisper, do we prefer our victims to be white?

And what was one of the leading lights in this movement?  It was Glaxo-Wellcome.  As we all know, the Wellcome is one of the major funders of historical research these days. Apart from the fact that such research has to be on something related to science, health and medicine it doesn't attach strings to these gifts.  No one suggests we shouldn't accept this money; I am certainly not suggesting it.(6)  Anyway, I don't see a problem in accepting this money.  It doesn't come with the demand that it be used to promote the public understanding of Glaxo-Wellcome, GlaxoSmithKline or whatever, or to support and promote the rightness of their approach to patenting and pricing life-saving medicines.  What it does is to fund a great deal of good research and keep a lot of good historians in the business, who might otherwise not be.  And they don't have to spend their whole career working on the history of science and medicine.  So it is a good thing and that matters a lot.  But, whether you like it or not, it's hardly 'clean money'.  What is?

Are there any exceptions we can make?  What about the money from the Gaddafi regime that led to the resignation of the head of the LSE?  I am not well informed but I know that other Gaddafi foundation money was used elsewhere as a slush fund for research into any subject - no restrictions.  But this is money, in the present, provided by a dictator oppressing and killing his people.  We knew about this.  Perhaps that sort of money should be rejected.  But how bad is bad?  Did people reject US government money when the US was invading Iraq or when it was funding terrorism in central America?  I don't think so.

Ultimately, there is no line you can easily draw on an ethical chart of what can be excused and what cannot, without exposing oneself to charges of hypocrisy, double-standards or whatever.  Whether or not conditions are attached to a gift, about subject matter, the angle of approach, etc., is something far easier to draw a meaningful line across.  Toepfer may have been a deeply unpleasant man with abhorrent views but in the end - because it came with no strings attached - his money allowed Richard Evans to set out on a career that led to him being a formidable foe for neo-Nazis and holocaust deniers.  I once took the Berlusconi lira (it was before the Euro), but I figured that if he wanted to pay a socialist historian to travel to a conference, give a paper about a quite left-wing approach to history, and write it up, then that was up to him; fair enough.  Wellcome money funds the careers of people who work hard for causes that the GlaxoSmithKline board of directors might (for all I know) oppose.  On the other hand, strings attached to gifts can seem innocuous at the time, but these things have an unpleasant habit, over time, of coming back to bite you.  When I walk from campus into town I have to walk past a theatre emblazoned with the name of a notorious, disgraced insider dealer...  Thus it's not - in my view - the origin of the money that matters so much as what you use it for, and what you're allowed to use it for.  That's easier to define.

With this said, you might think that my conclusion ought to be that therefore we ought not accept gifts of any sort, even with no strings attached, unless they are absolutely whiter than white (and that, practically, is going to be pretty difficult).  I don't think this is either practical or necessary.  For one thing, we academics are under so much pressure to bring in money (especially as the government slashes our funding) that it would be self-defeating to adopt such an attitude.  Furthermore, in middle management-dominated British universities, appointments and promotions now seem to be made heavily on the basis of funding brought in - no matter that you might be the best known historian on your subject in the world, no matter if the project is of no scholarly worth or interest outside a small area of the UK; it's the cash that counts.  Money talks.  Ethically, if we use the money to write history that does good in the various ways that it can do good, then I think that that is justification enough.  [I also think that an argument can be made that there is an ethical demand within the historical project which allows us to equate 'good' history with that which is ethically good, but that's for another time.] I repeat my point: it's not the origin of the money that matters so much as what you use it for, and what you're allowed to use it for.  We need to stop unconvincing attempts to decide which money is clean and which isn't because none of it is.  We need to be ruthlessly pragmatic, grit our teeth and accept it all, just as long as (and this is becoming my refrain) there are no strings attached.

There's another point of relevance, now.  Whether the AHRC was pressured into adopting the Big Society as a research priority (something which, I repeat, could be cleared up pretty quickly) or whether it decided to adopt it in an ignoble attempt to deflect funding cuts, even government money looks as though it might start being linked to political or ideological conditions.  So the demand to look for funding that allows us to do our research free from interference becomes even greater.  Demanding that we reject certain money because of its links to certain evils but accept others with links to different evils is not a position that can be adopted with any consistency.  If it allows us to carry out historical research in the directions we want to reach the conclusions we want, we have no choice but to accept the money.  Any money, provided it comes without conditions.

I accept that this argument might be politically difficult to make effective in the teeth of media or pressure-group howling - usually triggered by some contingent event (for instance, no one was very bothered by the LSE's Gaddafi money until a few weeks ago...) - but, to borrow the formula from Derrida, perhaps our thinking about research funding ought at least to be inflected by it?

(1) J. Derrida, On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness (2005; 'On forgiveness' originally 2001)

(2) I read an interview with Norman Tebbit recently (can't remember where; it was in a paper lying around in Pret a Manger) in which he said that since repentance was a prerequisite for forgiveness and since the IRA had never repented for the Brighton bomb, and indeed still sought to justify it, he could not forgive them.  I quite understand his position, but I think he is wrong about repentance being necessary for forgiveness.

(3) It is worth remembering, at this stage, as some people seem not to, that Derrida was himself Jewish.

(4) It's Oedipal, in a way, especially in the Lacanian reading.  Richard is in some ways the 'father' of my career, having appointed me to my first permanent post in 1991 - doing so, it should be said, in the face of the gurus of medieval history telling him which Oxbridge golden child was next in line for a job.  I think he got some flak for this; I certainly did.  For the next 3 or 4 years I had to put up with people telling me I shouldn't have my job.  No, really.  So in many regards I owe my career to him.  There aren't many people who will just appoint whoever they think is the best person for the job regardless of their school or university background, patronage, familial ties, the rest.  The profession could do with a few more like that.  I like to think that my subsequent career and those of the various people who 'should' have got my job justifies his choice.  Nevertheless we did knock heads a few times, which I like to flatter myself was partly down to us being a bit too alike, though the chances of me becoming as successful or politically effective as he is are slim indeed.

(5) A similar point is made in the opening pages of Alain Badiou's The Century.

(6) Even if I worry sometimes that its dominance in the funding of research might mean that in a generation or so every university historian is working on the history of science and medicine, that the social history of athlete's foot will have become more of a burning issue than major world historical developments...