Epstein, MIT, and ‘sugar-daddy science’

The sordid tale of efforts at MIT to woo donations from Jeffrey Epstein but keep hush-hush the fact the school was welcoming money from the registered sex offender has put a spotlight on the world of high-dollar donors to universities and other nonprofit institutions.  

Following a New Yorker article earlier this month that exposed the role of MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito in funneling Epstein money to his operation while whitewashing the financier’s name from records, Ito promptly resigned.  (Writer Ronan Farrow reported that staff in Ito’s office referred to Epstein as Voldemort or “he who must not be named.”) 

Harvard is embroiled in the scandal as well, with Epstein giving the university $9 million prior to his 2008 conviction. When the Harvard Crimson sounded alarms last December about the Epstein donations in the wake of new reporting by the Miami Herald that Epstein for years ran a sex ring for underage girls out of his Florida manse, the university had nothing to say. 

Last week, Harvard president Lawrence Bacow, in a message to the university community, decried the revelations about Epstein’s behavior and said the episode “raises significant questions about how institutions like ours review and vet donors.” Bacow said he would convene a group “to review how we prevent these situations in the future.”

At MIT, President L. Rafael Reif has issued no fewer than four letters of contrition to the university community in recent weeks. Reif himself signed a thank-you letter to Epstein for one donation he made in 2012. 

Globe columnist Shirley Leung wonders who at MIT should resign next, following the exit of Ito and this week’s resignation of a computer scientist who appeared to have minimized the issue of Epstein having sex with underage girls. It seems clear she has Reif in mind. Some calls for him to resign have already begun. 

For all the sickening details that seem to make the Epstein story an outlandish outlier, rich guys (and it usually is guys) paying their way to prominence through big donations for university research is a widespread practice. So much so that the phenomenon has earned its own name: “sugar-daddy science,” a term that takes on a dark double meaning in Epstein’s case. 

Agriculture scientist Sarah Taber, writing in The Atlantic, says sugar-daddy science has emerged as government funding, once the primary source of research dollars, has been pared back. “The system has fallen apart,” she writes, and private philanthropy has moved in to fill the breach. 

The problem isn’t just the money from shady donors like Epstein, whose identity universities want to hide, she says. It’s that rich benefactors tend to drive researchers toward buzz-worthy projects that are often a bust. She cites a recent effort at MIT’s Media Lab, reported on last week by Business Insider, to develop a “food computer” that would aid in growing “custom, local food.” It not only didn’t work, but researchers tried to hide that fact from its funders, says Taber.

“Research labs cultivate plutocrats and corporate givers who want to be associated with flashy projects,” she writes. “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.” 

Another such example, she says, is the Media Lab’s “One Laptop Per Child” project, a “notorious failure.” 

Taber discloses that she was turned down for a job two years ago at the Media Lab, but her argument seems much more than just sour grapes. 

The long-term solution, she says, would be a reinvigorated federal role in supporting research. At a minimum, she says, a basic level of oversight and standards for accepting private money needs to be put in place.

But there is an inherent conflict between universities’ insatiable appetite for donor dollars and drawing a line to separate those whose money an institution will take from those whose checks aren’t welcome.  

It makes things like the Epstein-MIT saga seem much more inevitable than incredible. 



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