YOU might have expected universal applause for the news that Britain’s richest man, Sir Jim Ratcliffe, and his giant chemical group, Ineos, are donating £100 million to the University of Oxford to fund research into antibiotics-resistant “superbugs”. You might have expected . . . but you would be failing to take on board the cynicism that often accompanies high-profile philanthropy. And this is very high-profile: it is the largest donation that Oxford has ever received for a science project.
The problem that it seeks to address is substantial. The over-use and misuse of antibiotics has rendered many ineffective. The result is 1.5 million additional deaths a year — and that could rise to ten million annually by 2050. The Covid pandemic should have taught us the danger of failing to act early enough.
The British have a curiously ambivalence attitude to philanthropy. Big donations are often assumed to be some kind of tax dodge, though donors always lay out more than they receive in tax relief. Yet, philanthropists often find themselves acting as a lightning conductor for a general public resentment against the rich at a time of ever-widening inequality.
But Sir Jim has offered grounds for more cynicism than usual. A vocal Brexiteer, he quit Britain last year for Monaco. The move, which will save him £4 billion in tax, came soon after he was knighted by the Queen for “services to business and investment”. Then, last month, he announced that the new Ineos off-road car — which, he had said, would be built in Wales as “a significant expression of confidence in British manufacturing” — would now be built in France after a better offer from Mercedes, which “we simply could not ignore”.
The Vice-Chancellor of Oxford, Professor Louise Richardson, while expressing huge gratitude for the gift, could not resist a little side-swipe. The donation was a vote of confidence in the university’s research record, which had produced a Covid vaccine in less than a year. “We were able to adapt so quickly . . . because we had spent 20 years working on it, doing blue-skies research,” she said. And then she added that “the British public cannot get enough of experts at the moment,” in a clear reference to Michael Gove’s Brexit soundbite suggesting the exact opposite.
Professor Richardson treads a canny line here, much as she did when the American philanthropist Stephen Schwarzman donated £150 million in 2019 — Oxford’s largest single gift since the Renaissance — to house a new institute to study the ethics of Artificial Intelligence. Mr Schwarzman is the head of the Blackstone Group, the world’s biggest private-equity firm and property landlord, which was the subject of a highly critical United Nations report. The report accused the company of aggressive evictions, rent inflation, and generally “wreaking havoc” among tenants around the world.
Some talk of tainted money. Others reply, with General William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army: “The trouble with tainted money is t’aint enough of it.” The real problem is this: only one in ten of the world’s seriously rich individuals give seriously; 91 per cent give almost nothing at all. So, those who do, whatever caveats we may attach, deserved to be applauded.
Philanthropy: From Aristotle to Zuckerberg by Paul Vallely is published by Bloomsbury (Books, 11 September 2020).