The Problem with Sugar-Daddy Science

The pursuit of money from wealthy donors distorts the research process — and yields flashy projects that don’t help and don’t work

The MIT Media Lab has an integrity problem. It’s not just that the lab took donations from Jeffrey Epstein and tried to conceal their source. As that news was breaking, Business Insiderreported that the lab’s much-hyped “food computer” didn’t work and that staff had tried to mislead funders into thinking it did. These stories are two sides of the same problem: sugar-daddy science — the distortion of the research process by the pursuit of money from ultra-wealthy donors, no matter how shady.

Historically, research has been funded by grants. Government agencies and foundations announce that they want to fund X, and you, the scientist, write a proposal about why you’ll be awesome at X. If they agree, they give you money to do X.

That system has fallen apart. Thanks to funding cuts, getting government grants is like squeezing water from a stone. And many private foundations have, in turn, swaddled their grants in red tape. Many scientists spend more time writing grant applications than actually doing science. Private philanthropy — especially the kind that writes big, blank checks — is appealing.

The problem is, blank checks never come without strings. Something’s always exchanged: access, status, image. That’s where sugar-daddy science comes in. (Hat tip to Heidi N. Moore, who inspired the term with her Twitter critiques of what she calls sugar-daddy journalism.) Research labs cultivate plutocrats and corporate givers who want to be associated with flashy projects. Science stops being a tool to achieve things people need — clean water, shelter, food, transit, communication — and becomes a fashion accessory. If the labs are sleek, the demos look cool, and they both reflect the image the donor wants, then mission accomplished. Nothing needs to actually work.

The “food computer” was the flagship technology at the Media Lab’s Open Agriculture Initiative. The purpose of the hydroponic device was to rapidly grow plants to exact specifications. Program the right amounts of water, nutrients, and light into the plastic box, and it would automatically grow plants up to four times faster than normal. The device had all the hallmarks of sugar-daddy science: It looked amazing, and nothing added up. As a crop scientist, I’d worked in room-sized versions of this back in 2001, and the equipment was already dated by then. The speed gains its creators touted — especially when the food computer wasn’t as nearly as revolutionary or sophisticated as publicity made it out to be — just didn’t smell right.

Sure enough, the boxes did not function as promised, and news reports portray a Theranos-style deception. “Ahead of big demonstrations of the devices with MIT Media Lab funders, staff were told to place plants grown elsewhere into the devices,” Business Insider reported. “One former researcher,” declared a subsequent story in the The Chronicle of Higher Education, “described buying lavender plants from a gardening store, dusting the dirt off the roots so it looked as if they’d been grown without soil, and placing them in the food computer ahead of a photo shoot. The resulting photos were sent to news media and put on the project’s website.”

Full disclosure: When the Media Lab announced in 2017 that it was looking for innovators who didn’t have a conventional research background, I applied. I’d been working in the indoor-farm industry for years as a fixer; companies hired me for food-safety work, but then I wound up dealing with a range of brick-and-mortar problems that eluded the tech world — things like cold-chain logistics, pest control, water chemistry, security, breaking production logjams, and keeping staff from getting electrocuted. Agricultural and food-systems design is my wheelhouse. The food computer is nice, I told the Media Lab. But if you really want to knock things loose, hire me.

It didn’t. At the time, I didn’t think much of not getting the job. Agriculture is an offbeat niche for MIT, and no doubt the Media Lab had many other applicants. I already had a thriving business. No harm, no foul.

But in recent weeks — like many scientists who’ve worked real-world problems adjacent to the Media Lab — I’ve been asking why someone like me isn’t a good fit for high-profile science, but “food computer” makers and convicted pedophiles are.

The Media Lab took sugar-daddy science to a new level. Epstein’s interests in science, like a desire to “seed the human race” by impregnating dozens of women and to have his head and penis frozen after his death, were more literally sexual than most. But he didn’t invent the hustle. It’s an old philanthropy problem: Donor gratification takes precedence over results.

The MIT Media Lab already had a reputation for this before Epstein. Its One Laptop per Child project was a notorious failure. Like the food computer, it was based on a faulty premise (laptops aren’t known to actually make a difference in a child’s education), wildly oversold (the laptops were supposed to be powered by hand crank, but a working hand crank was never actually developed, and all models were powered by electrical cord), and built to fulfill donor dreams rather than a demonstrated real-world need.

A project for futuristic, bio-inspired design took $125,000 from Epstein and made him a light-up orb as a gift — over objections from students working in the project lab. This lab’s work includes, among truly visionary work like biomanufactured chitin structures, showpiece clothing demos. One set was purported to show how biodesign could help wearers survive harsh conditions on other planets. The clothes are, however, entirely nonfunctional, and were photographed on skinny, half-naked women.

How do we stop sugar-daddy science? The only long-term solution is to bring back federal funding so researchers can stop relying on donations from the beneficiaries of widening inequality. America’s competitiveness on the world stage depends on research and development. If we can’t make science that actually works, our nation is toast. Writers such as Anand Giridharadas have written relentlessly about reviving public research and other social services. This, however, has to be fixed through the democratic process, which will take time.

So what can research institutions do to ensure the integrity of their work? There are obvious solutions, such as: Don’t take money from people who are on your banned-donor list for being convicted pedophiles. Basic oversight, like financial audits, can go a long way.

Next, research and philanthropy should recognize that improving people’s lives usually involves a series of adjustments to complex systems, not a single revolutionary invention. The Boston-based nonprofit Partners in Health is a model here. It tackles problems that eluded medical charities for decades, such as drug-resistant tuberculosis, by taking on underlying issues — like the malnutrition that makes people vulnerable to TB in the first place — instead of just prescribing drugs. Instead of attempting to build a food computer, a lab could identify a more immediate need, such as cheap, easy-to-clean food-handling equipment, and invent that. No one should fear losing prestige by fixing real problems.

Finally, research needs a clear mission. The MIT Media Lab — whose mission amounted to We’re basically down for anything — was easily hijacked by social climbers and scoundrels. The pure pursuit of science, freed from worldly concerns like politics and money, is a seductive illusion. In reality, it ends up attracting the very worst people.

All Rights Reserved for Sarah Taber

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