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The Massachusetts Institute of Technology announcement comes after two researchers said they would leave the university because of its links to the sex offender.

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Ethan Zuckerman speaks at the Re:publica Internet conference in Berlin, Germany, 5 May 2015.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is launching an investigation into its interactions with sex offender and alleged sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein. The university — one of the most prominent in the United States — received about US$800,000 in donations from the disgraced financier over two decades.

MIT president Rafael Reif announced the investigation on 22 August in an e-mail to the university community. All of Epstein’s donations went to either the MIT Media Lab, an interdisciplinary research centre, or to physics professor Seth Lloyd, Reif said. “To my great regret, despite following the processes that have served MIT well for many years, in this instance we made a mistake of judgment,” he added.

The MIT inquiry will be led by the university’s provost, electrical engineer Martin Schmidt. Representatives of the Cambridge, Massachusetts, university declined Nature’s request for further comment on the matter.

In 2008, Epstein pleaded guilty in Florida to two state felony charges of soliciting a minor for prostitution. He served more than a year in prison. In July of this year, he pleaded not guilty in a federal court in New York to charges of running a sex-trafficking ring of underage girls. Epstein died by suicide in a New York City jail earlier this month while awaiting trial.

Epstein donated millions of dollars to support scientific research over more than a decade, and cultivated relationships with prominent scientists before and after his conviction in 2008.

Researchers quit

The MIT announcement comes days after two researchers cut ties with the MIT Media Lab because of the university’s dealings with Epstein. Ethan Zuckerman, an assistant professor at MIT, said on 20 August that he will leave the university by May 2020 — the end of the current academic year.

“The work my group does focuses on social justice and on the inclusion of marginalized individuals and points of view,” Zuckerman wrote on his blog. “It’s hard to do that work with a straight face in a place that violated its own values so clearly in working with Epstein.”

The next day, Nathan Matias, a visiting scholar at the Media Lab, said that he too would end his affiliation with the centre at the end of this academic year. Matias said that some of his research focusing on “protecting women and other vulnerable people” from online harassment and abuse. “I cannot with integrity do that from a place with the kind of relationship that the Media Lab has had with Epstein,” he said in a post on the blog site Medium. “It’s that simple.”

Both researchers said that they learned of the Media Lab’s relationship with Epstein on 15 August, after the centre’s director Joichi Ito posted a public statement on the matter. Ito said that he met Epstein in 2013 “through a trusted business friend”, and later invited him to the Media Lab and visited Epstein’s residences.

Ito also apologized for accepting money from foundations that Epstein controlled for the lab and for technology investment funds that Ito runs. “I take full responsibility for my error in judgment,” he wrote. “I am deeply sorry to the survivors, to the Media Lab, and to the MIT community for bringing such a person into our network.” Ito has not yet responded to Nature’s request for further comment following the resignations.

Returned funds

Lloyd, who also received donations from Epstein, posted his own public apology online on 22 August. Lloyd said that he met Epstein at a dinner for scientists and their supporters in 2004, and saw him when Epstein visited Harvard University — which, like MIT, is in Cambridge — over the next few years.

Lloyd said that he accepted one grant from an Epstein foundation then, and two more after Epstein was released from prison in Florida. The scientist also said that he visited Epstein in prison.

“These were professional as well as moral failings,” Lloyd wrote. “By continuing to participate in discussions [Epstein] had with me and other scientists and by accepting his donations, I helped Mr. Epstein protect his reputation, and I disempowered his victims.”

Lloyd said that he has “committed financial resources” to aid Epstein’s victims and other survivors of sexual abuse and trafficking, and “will work assiduously to help make your voices heard”.

Similarly, Ito said that he will “raise an amount equivalent to the donations the Media Lab received from Epstein and will direct those funds to non-profits that focus on supporting survivors of trafficking”. Ito added that he will return the money that Epstein invested in Ito’s investment funds.

And Reif, MIT’s president, said that the university will commit an amount equal to the funds it received from Epstein to “an appropriate charity that benefits his victims or other victims of sexual abuse”.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-01805-3

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