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UA professor faces questions about accepting money from controversial foundation

Heather Newberry
The University of Arizona’s Old Main building on campus.

The scene is Newark, Delaware circa 1992. After a prolonged legal battle, the University of Delaware allows two professors to accept funding from the Pioneer Fund to examine the relationship between race and intelligence over the protests of faculty and students.

That was 1992. Fast forward to 2018, and the Pioneer Fund’s support of university research has dramatically declined. Once supporting faculty studies at over a dozen domestic universities, the fund’s sole remaining grant recipient resides at the University of Arizona. 

Aurelio José Figueredo, a professor of psychology at the UA, was approached by the Pioneer Fund in the early 2000s after the federal government declined to fund his research into life history strategies. Figueredo’s primary source of funding has come from the fund ever since. 

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The Pioneer Fund remains a controversial organization, having funded a number of white nationalist groups over the years. The research of Dr. Figueredo does not examine race and intelligence, as in the case of the University of Delaware, but his acceptance of the groups funding has similarly sparked criticism from faculty and students.

Life History Strategies

Figueredo began his academic career in the graduate program at the University of California, Riverside studying comparative psychology, which at the time focused on studying animal behavior and developing theories to describe observed human behavior. 

After graduating Figueredo began his ongoing 31-year tenure at the University of Arizona in the Department of Psychology, researching in the relatively new field of evolutionary psychology. 

Figueredo’s primary area of study has been life history strategies. 

“Life history strategies are arrayed on a continuum from slow to fast,” Figueredo said. “A prime example of an organism with a fast history strategy would be the rabbit. They have a short life span, prolific reproduction rates, high infant mortality, few social bonds and invest little time in parental care.”

At the other end of the spectrum are elephants, who carry their babies in their wombs for 21 months and breastfeed offspring for close to six years, according to Figueredo. These strategies are influenced by both genetics and the environment. 

Until recently delving into the apparent decline of general human intelligence in Western democracies, Figueredo primarily focused on using variations in life history strategies across human cultures to study parental care and adolescent deviancy.  

“I study how variations in human life history strategies affect personality, family structure, parental care and family relationships,” Figueredo said. 

According to Figueredo, the broad goal of his research is to develop a better understanding of human nature. By helping to explain why individuals act the way they do in terms of variations in life history strategies and adaptation to their environments, Figueredo hopes to make people less inclined to think their way of life is right and another individual’s is wrong. 

Figueredo has researched in a number of countries from Australia and Singapore to Spain and Costa Rica. Figueredo primarily studies what he describes as homogenous cultures and has yet to translate his research to multicultural communities. 

Eugenics and The Pioneer Fund

The Pioneer Fund was founded in 1937 by Wickliffe Draper, who made his fortune in textile manufacturing. The fund’s original mission was to promote eugenics, or the restriction of human reproduction — specifically among persons of color — to weed out perceived unfavorable characteristics thought to be linked to heredity. 

Since its creation the Pioneer Fund has funded controversial studies by over 40 researchers and has awarded grants to a number of white nationalist groups, including an organization associated with Richard Spencer, the infamous alt-right personality, according to tax filings obtained by the Associated Press. 

In terms of American history, the Pioneer Fund is not unique. 

In its 1927 decision in Buck v. Bell, the United States Supreme Court infamously ruled that forcibly sterilizing individuals with intellectual disabilities did not violate the U.S. Constitution. 

“Scientific research was thought to be important for grounding such legal decisions, in order to establish that there was, in their view, a wider public interest in preventing people from reproducing,” said Jeremy Vetter, an associate professor of history at the UA. 

According to Vetter, funding and public support for eugenics research that sought to demonstrate the heritability of intelligence and criminality, as well as forced sterilization campaigns that disproportionately targeted non-whites, was widespread in the United States before World War II.

After the rise of the Nazis in Germany, and their close association and support of scientific research into eugenics, the field lost credibility and acceptance in the United States, except in far-right political circles, but eugenic polices continued to be applied into the late 1970s, according to Vetter. 

“Although some geneticists and other scientists have continued to undertake research that might have fit into ‘eugenics’ in an earlier era, they typically would not want to have their research characterized this way in the post-World War II era or to argue in support of more extreme policy responses in terms of government intervention,” Vetter said. 

The Politics of Research

Figueredo said he does not support eugenics and has written as such in the past.

According to Figueredo, the Pioneer Fund has never interfered in his research or asked him to pursue specific results or alter his data.

To Figueredo’s knowledge, the fund has never used his research to advance racist or eugenics agendas. Figueredo himself says he shies away from politics. 

“My research is not inherently political. I do basic scientific research and do not believe I know enough to make any political recommendations,” Figueredo said. 

Whenever a researcher studies human behavior from an evolutionary point of view, there is the possibility that other individuals could attempt to translate those findings to support something negative like the ideology of eugenics, according to Lee Ryan, department head of psychology at the UA. 

“Science occurs in a societal and ideological context, and the same data can be used in both positive and negative ways depending on individual interpretations,” Ryan said. 

In Ryan’s opinion, Figueredo’s work has been independent and highly respected in his field and is not fueling racist or eugenic points of view. 

With this consideration, the question at hand does not concern Figueredo’s research, according to Ryan. The question seems to be if it was right or wrong to take money from the Pioneer Fund. 

For Figueredo this is moot.

“As far as I am concerned, the funding source does not affect the value of scientific research. In science you pay attention to: how solid is the evidence, how plausible is the theory and where is the proof,” Figueredo said. 

Moreover, for Figueredo the motivations behind research do not affect whether its results are factual or not. 

While Figueredo does acknowledge the Pioneer Fund has had a checkered past, he does not believe the organization, in its present state, reflects those same values. This runs contrary to recent media coverage on the organization by the Associated Press and others. 

Figueredo countered that he could not imagine such an organization would fund the research of a Hispanic immigrant who supports racial equality such as himself.

“If I believed that I was doing any harm by taking money from the Pioneer Fund I would stop. I do not believe in harming people,” Figueredo said. 

Figueredo has yet to decide whether or not to apply for further funding from the Pioneer Fund for the next calendar year. 

Academic Freedom and the UA

Not everyone feels the way Figueredo does about accepting research funding from an organization like the Pioneer Fund. 

“Speaking for myself, I would not accept money from this organization,” said Jessica Summers, UA’s faculty chair and an associate professor of teaching, learning and sociocultural studies. 

“I don’t want the UA promoting the Pioneer Fund. The kind of work that is associated with them is antithetical to our values, particularly as a Hispanic-Serving Institution,” Summers said.  

The UA cannot prevent faculty from seeking funding from specific sources due to the principles of academic freedom according to Shaun Esposito, chair of the committee on academic freedom and tenure membership and head of public services of the Law Library.

“At its ideal, academic freedom allows faculty to challenge the standard ideas of their discipline and an outright ban on a specific funding source would be problematic,” Esposito said.

According to Esposito, academic freedom has its limitations but it does not allow the UA to discriminate against the viewpoints of faculty or their funding sources within reason as long as the integrity of the research is not at stake.

Summers says she fully supports the academic freedom of faculty at UA. In Summers’ opinion, though, the UA has benefited from the $458,000 accepted from the Pioneer Fund at the university since 2003 and believes the UA must take a political stand. 

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Summers called on the UA to refuse to collect a percentage of grant funds received from the Pioneer Fund, as they would normally do with other grants to support university facilities and other research-related activities. 

Chris Sigurdson, vice president of communications at the UA, believes it is paramount for the university to respect the academic freedom of faculty and to support faculty, thereby creating an environment conducive to scholarship. 

“Professors seek research funds from a variety of sources. The university does not typically restrict the source of outside funds, but focuses on protecting open, free and competent academic inquiry,”  Sigurdson said.

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