Sugar Daddies, Science, and Plan S

More events reveal problems with funders, and the effect of money on academia

One role of publishers is to create and sustain editorial processes that provide disinterested, third-party evaluation of claims made by researchers. There is a reason for this — funders are humans, and humans are faulty. It’s smart to put a firebreak between people with money and scientific claims, and publishers evolved to populate this firebreak. Funding models have also generally been reader-focused (not author-focused or funder-focused), adding to the strength of the firebreak. The shift to author-pays models and funder-backed journals has weakened this firebreak.

Recently, there has been plenty of trouble on the funder side of the world, from a US government that is no longer a reliable and unbiased participant in pursuing the best science (here and here), to the Jeffrey Epstein affair at MIT, which recently extended to include Harvard. The Sackler family has been implicated in fomenting the opioid crisis through it funding of papers and authors. Funders have become more aggressive in publishing, with some starting journals of their own, issuing mandates about how publishers should make their money (and how much they can make), and generally throwing their weight around. Plan S is all about bringing funder pressure to bear on reshaping the market in their favor.

Last week, Sarah Taber, a researcher with a glancing relationship to the MIT Media Lab and the primary force behind the  well-regarded “Farm to Taber” podcast, lit up Twitter with a no-holds-barred story of her experience with the place, and coined a term which inspired the headline — “sugar daddy science.” Here’s an edited version (for brevity mainly, and putting tweets together into full paragraphs) of what she had to say (she’s writing a more formal version of this for imminent publication in a popular magazine). This is used with permission:

Ok kiddos let’s do this. Time to talk about my pretty-minimal-but-still-REALLY-WEIRD brushes with the MIT Media Lab. . . . Around two years ago the MIT Media Lab announced a job posting. It was a WILD AND CRAZY job posting because they’re a WILD AND CRAZY lab! . . . In keeping w that, the job ad was v odd for academic research.
  • No stated discipline
  • You don’t even need a doctorate!
  • You did need an “unconventional take that doesn’t respect disciplinary boundaries,”
  • and a record of communicating science with the public. Now a couple things about my career that you need to know.I graduated with a DPM*— not PhD — in 2011, during the depths of the recession & a federal hiring freeze. I was fuuuuuuucked.

    *DPM = Dr of Plant Medicine, it’s like a veterinarian for crops. That was a time when the ag industry — Bayer & Syngenta et al — were SCREAMING that they absolutely needed more STEM grads STAT.

    Except they weren’t actually hiring, bc recession. And nobody knew what was happening w the Farm Bill & future of the ag industry bc gov’t shutdown. So they’re yelling “please send us more people” but you could barely get an interview, and once you did, you didn’t hear back.

    So I got a postdoc by the skin of my teeth, and started building a consulting business. This is pretty common for crop scientists. Just due to who my first couple of clients were, I wound up specializing in food safety and general facility-having-its-shit-together-ness for greenhouses and indoor farms. I went from beyond-broke grad w no prospects in a shitty economy, to a national-level consultant w no debt . . . Pretty soon I was one of the people with the most real-life logistics & systems analytics experience in the entire indoor ag industry. . . .

    So. When the MIT Media Lab said “We don’t even care what you do! We just want you to be interdisciplinary & good at words!” I thought, huh. I do hella interdisciplinary real-world stuff every day, & it’s mostly about talking w people to bring their different skill sets together. So I leaned tf in and got to know the Media Lab’s work. They already had a lab that did indoor ag. I figured hey, let’s see if I’ve got anything to add to this lab?

    Hoo boy. The Media Lab’s indoor farm lab was basically centered around this fancy 2-cubic-foot lucite box called a “food computer.” The idea was you can program temperature, water/fertilizer routine, lighting, etc into it, plant seeds, & make EXACTLY the plants you wanted. There’s only one problem. I used to work with room-sized versions of these. Back in 2001. They’re called growth chambers, they’d been standard plant physiology research tools for decades, & they ain’t new at all. But that’s pretty standard-level bullshit for the tech space. I mean, Lyft “invented” the motherfuckin bus. That’s just what happens when rich people think “dropped out of engineering school” means “expert on all the things.”

    So in the application, I focused on what I could do for them.

    I said “Listen. This food computer thing is super cute. But if you want to make something commercializable [which is ostensibly the entire point of the MITML], hire me. I got you.”

    I didn’t get the post, which isn’t too surprising. . . . I spent the next 2 years sporadically annoyed that someone got an MIT program director gig, seats on big fancy boards, & a TED talk when their big initiative was a toy version of tech that was already antiquated when I’d worked with nearly 20 years ago. Every so often I’d run across an article about the Food Computer & there’s usually a line in there about how “We can even program the plants to taste stronger or milder by changing environmental conditions!” Yeah no shit. Higher temperatures, less watering, and/or higher salt content in the nutrient water makes plants make more flavor compounds. We’ve known that since the 19-mothafuckin-80s! It’s hydroponics 101. And then the other day, this news came out. (…) Y’all might have missed it because it broke at the same time as the Epstein/Joi Ito news but it turns out this toy version of a growth chamber DOESN’T EVEN WORK. It couldn’t grow plants.

    When donors & investors came by they had to go to Home Depot, buy 4-packs of basil plants, flick off the dirt, and pop them in the Food Computer to make it look like they grew there.


    Now. I don’t know this dude from Adam and I’m not saying he personally took Epstein money, bc who knows. But I am saying that a Media Lab complex that feeds off a sugar daddy might not be terribly motivated to. like. make tech that actually works. Most labs make their $ commercializing technology. . . .

    There’s a really fine line between science philanthropy & straight-up Sugar Daddy Science, and MIT-ML and Epstein sure found it.

    . . . it kind of looks to me like they also might have tolerated obviously crap projects — because their business model was more about playing to rich men's fantasies about science than it was about actually doing science. Again, I don’t know the specifics of that lab’s underwriting. I don’t actually think it’s that likely that the food computer lab had much to do directly with Epstein money.

    But I wondered for YEARS how they got funding to just obviously dick around like that. Then it turned out to not only have a fatally flawed premise but was also straight-up fraud. . . . Epstein didn’t just wreck girls’ lives. He didn’t just try to popularize eugenics. He derailed science. . . . Shit pretend science got ahead thanks to the lack of discipline he enabled. Good science that actually solves real problems got crowded out. We desperately need good tech on sustainable energy. Food. Clean water. Ecological renovation. Transportation. And this glamour-brothel of a research institute spent millions on a fucking toy box that doesn’t even work.

    That is completely inexcusable. I can guarantee you there’s a lot more where this came from. Epstein gave generously to Harvard and other unis that haven’t even started to break yet.

    Pour one out for all the scientists who can’t get real shit funded because administration’s too busy strutting for sugar daddy. That’s about all I’ve got to say about that.

    I just want to make sure that if you think a lot of the high-profile science world seems to be useless, stupid crap, YOU’RE ABSOLUTELY RIGHT. This is my best take on why that is. It’s so much worse than it looks. Sugar Daddy Science is a disgrace and it needs to die. Pronto. The end.

The Epstein scandal continues to blossom like a rash across academia (might want to get that looked at . . . ). As noted above, it now includes Harvard, which admitted receiving money from Epstein after 10 days of pressure. Extending the MIT story, Ronan Farrow has produced evidence of how MIT sought to cover up their involvement with Epstein, writing:

. . . although Epstein was listed as “disqualified” in M.I.T.’s official donor database, the Media Lab continued to accept gifts from him, consulted him about the use of the funds, and, by marking his contributions as anonymous, avoided disclosing their full extent, both publicly and within the university. Perhaps most notably, Epstein appeared to serve as an intermediary between the lab and other wealthy donors, soliciting millions of dollars in donations from individuals and organizations . . .

The problem of money twisting academic life is deeply rooted in academia today. In last Friday’s “Pivot” podcast, Scott Galloway, a professor at NYU, said:

In the US, there’s a direct correlation between your ranking as a university and the size of your endowment. I know this firsthand — there’s tremendous pressure to be raising money all the time, and you can see how institutions would rationalize weakened ethics to raise more and more money. It all reverse-engineers down to this really terrible gestalt in the world of academia where we no longer see ourselves as public servants — we see ourselves as luxury brands, and we want to raise billions and billions of dollars, but we don’t want to expand our freshman seats. Stanford has triple the applicants for its freshman class, but they refuse to expand the number of seats each year such that people like me can stand up in faculty meetings and hear our deans say, “We rejected 90% of our applicants,” and say it with pride, which to me is tantamount to a homeless shelter bragging that they turned away 90% of the people who showed up last night. Money and prestige has totally invaded academia, and we think of ourselves as luxury brands — we’ve totally lost the script — as opposed to public servants.

As Kara Swisher notes in the subsequent discussion with Galloway:

Why do we go to someone like Mark Zuckerberg and let him determine how education should be reformed? Why don’t we just tax him, and then we decide?

Is scholarly publishing party to this? Do we get funding from billionaire’s philanthropies, and look the other way? Do we have initiatives (preprint servers, for instance) that only exist because of sugar daddies? Do we let billionaires fund and manage journals?

The problem of “sugar daddy science” is apparent in many places, including how and where results are published. Plan S is an explicit appeal to the power of funders, with its main architect admitting as much in January:

Who holds the key to the solution? . . . the funders, the ones who hold the purse. Because the one who holds the purse can change the system, of course.

Funders aren’t saints. That’s rarely been so clear as it has become this year. In addition, the one who holds the purse can distort the system, ruin competition, and corrupt people and organizations. In a time when income inequality is so extreme, and elitists like those behind Plan S and massive Internet companies increasingly bend the world to their wills, should we actively spurn the sugar daddies?

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