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 Insider reported 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.