Pioneering Eugenics in 2018?

University of Arizona psychologist is under scrutiny for taking money from an organization founded to support research in eugenics.

September 10, 2018
 
Aurelio Figueredo

The Pioneer Fund was established in a 1937 with the goal of promoting "race betterment" -- as in the white race -- and it has long funded research that supports or could support a link between race and intelligence. So, in 2018, when mainstream science has debunked any such link, is the Pioneer Fund still a legitimate source of funding for an academic researcher?

More precisely, is it still a legitimate source of funding for Aurelio Figueredo, professor of psychology, family studies and human development at the University of Arizona? Figueredo is facing public and professional scrutiny following a recent Associated Press investigation that found he is the only scientific researcher still receiving funding from the Pioneer Fund: his grants reportedly accounted for all $90,000 of the Maryland-based nonprofit’s contributions reported to the Internal Revenue Service from 2014 to 2016. In all, Figueredo received a total of $458,000 from the Pioneer Fund from 2003 to 2016.

“It’s a foundation with an explicit agenda to prove that a biological hierarchy exists,” said Alexandra Minna Stern, chair in American culture and professor of history, women’s studies and obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Michigan, who is an expert in the eugenics movement. “So for any university with a mission that embraces the basic tenets of equality, meritocracy, producing democratic citizens and having a multiracial, diverse student body, the mission of the Pioneer Fund is antagonistic to those very values.”

So far, Arizona is supporting Figueredo’s right as an academic to seek funding where he sees fit.

“Professors seek research funds from a variety of sources,” said Chris Sigurdson, university spokesperson. Arizona doesn’t typically restrict the source of outside funds, he said, “but focuses on protecting open, free and competent academic inquiry.”

Lee Ryan, chair of psychology, said that Figueredo was accepting funding from the Pioneer Fund long before she look over as chair three years ago, but that internal concerns about his funding had never before been raised, to her knowledge. Figueredo’s research “has always been fully vetted” by Arizona’s institutional review board, she said, citing her colleague's previous public statements that his research has never involved race or been used to support racist or eugenist views.

“I accept Dr. Figueredo’s statement that he would discontinue this research if he felt that anyone was being harmed by it,” Ryan said, referring to Figueredo’s specific comment to that effect to the AP.

Figueredo declined several requests for an interview. Much of his work focuses on evolutionary psychology and life cycle strategy, and not the link between race and intelligence. His more recent research has focused on social biogeography, or how physical and community ecological factors produce "variations in subsistence and natural resources that then impact biometric markers of life history, triggering changes in social equality, within-group and between-group peace, sexual equality, macroeconomic diversification and human capital.” Such changes ultimately “produce changes in brain volume and aggregate cognitive abilities,” he argues.

Figueredo in his research has frequently cited the work of the late J. Philippe Rushton, a Canadian psychologist who was for many years the president of the Pioneer Fund. While life cycle strategy sounds innocuous enough when applied across species, such as rabbits living and dying quickly and elephants living and caring for their young much longer, Rushton applied the theory within species, namely people. His theory was that black people lived on an accelerated cycle, white people on something of an average, and East Asians on the longest cycle. He attributed those alleged differences to intelligence and genetics. His work was widely criticized as racist and based on shaky science.

Richard Lynn, director of the Ulster Institute for Social Research and the Pioneer Fund’s current president, confirmed that Figueredo is the fund’s only current beneficiary, saying there is no additional funding available. Lynn estimated it doled out just $8,000 in 2017. But the AP first reported that Figueredo’s curriculum vitae says he received a $30,000 grant from the Pioneer for the 2017-18 academic year.

Lynn was candid about the fund’s goals, saying via email that Pioneer was originally set up to promote research in eugenics and that both he and it continue to support eugenics.

Pioneer “funds research relevant to this objective although not necessarily on eugenics, e.g. -- in the case of grants to Arizona -- topics considered relevant to eugenics,” such as “intelligence, personality, genetics,” he said.

The Pioneer Fund has contributed to Figueredo’s research, as well as his participation in the London Conference on Intelligence. The conference, started in 2014, has attracted international criticism for hosting panels on eugenics.

In correspondence in the journal Intelligence, published by Elsevier, Figueredo and a large group of other London conference-goers said that “innovative intelligence research on controversial topics is often subjected to biased and sensationalized media reporting, including (in some cases) personal attacks against the researchers involved.” Such a pattern has “wider ramifications for these researchers,” they wrote, “as such attacks are sometimes coupled with withdrawal of both social support from colleagues and institutional resources, which may leave researchers isolated within their own faculties. In some instances (such as where employment safeguards, e.g. tenure, are either less absolute or are absent), defamed scientists are even dismissed. Worse still, a subset of these cases involved threats of violence from political activists.”

The writers linked what they called the “politicization” of research on intelligence and its alleged hijacking by egalitarian ideals to the 1981 publication of Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man, a widely read takedown of biological determinism.

Ed Dutton, an intelligence researcher and cultural anthropologist based in Europe who co-wrote a 2104 paper with Lynn arguing that natural scientists are smarter and therefore less political and less religious than social scientists, also signed the Intelligence correspondence. Interestingly, perhaps, Dutton also recently self-published a damning portrait of Rushton, alleging that he cherry-picked findings, manipulated people into supporting his ideas and was a violent narcissist in his personal life. Yet Dutton said recently that the Pioneer Fund and race and intelligence remain legitimate sources for academic inquiry.

“The purpose of science is to establish the truth about the nature of the world,” he said. “This means putting aside emotion and ideology, and simply going where the data takes you. Accordingly, we cannot have areas of research which are off-limits.”

Dutton added, “My understanding was that the Pioneer Fund was established to fund research into certain areas that it's sometimes difficult to attain funding for. You can criticize the ideology of the man who established the fund, but you'll find that most funders have some kind of ideology, so it's not a persuasive argument.” (Wickliffe Draper, an advocate of eugenics, started the fund.)

It’s true that many research funders have some kind of ideology. The Ford Foundation, for example, has long supported work focused on understanding diverse cultures and economic disparities. And the Charles Koch Foundation, whose founder, Charles Koch, pumps money into free market causes, continues to be criticized for that reason -- along with what some see as inappropriate strings attached to grants -- as its footprint in academe expands. But relatively few nonprofits fund academic research that has been widely panned as not only ideological but fundamentally unscientific.

Still, the American Association of University Professors supports professors’ right to seek funding where they wish -- even from the Pioneer Fund -- as long as it’s disclosed. In the 1990s, the AAUP successfully advocated for two professors of education whom the University of Delaware blocked from receiving Pioneer funding. The AAUP’s Recommended Principles to Guide Academy-Industry Relationships says, in part, that no contract “should restrict faculty, students, postdoctoral fellows or academic professionals from freely disclosing their funding source. A signed copy of all final legal research contracts and [memorandums of understanding] formalizing the [contract] and any other types of sponsored agreements formed on campus … should be made freely available to the public -- with discrete redactions only to protect valid commercial trade secrets, but not for other reasons.”

Maybe Pioneer is dying a natural death anyway, with its diminishing resources. Still, Stern, of Michigan, said she’d be concerned if someone on her campus took up with the fund, which has in the past supported organizations led by white nationalists -- disclosure or no disclosure.

“It’s not ethical,” she said, noting the recent resurgence of white nationalism in American life. “What we also have to consider is, 'Why are these questions being asked? What is the underlying motivation behind them?' If these scholars and scientists claim to have evidence to show the relationship between genetics and intelligence, the point is, what are you supposed to do with that information?”

The historical aims of the eugenics movement “might not be right on the table, but they’re not far under the surface,” Stern said.

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