Nothing to see here: Big Tech is funding academic research on Big Tech

If Joan Donovan – a misinformation expert who says she was pushed out of Harvard after Meta donated half a billion dollars to the university – is right, buying silence in academia really is possible. The trend is troubling.

When did you last read an independent research piece that was not critical of big technology companies and their ways of doing business? That’s right, I can’t remember either. They take our data and sell it to third parties, they’ve monetized rage, and they don’t really care about facts, do they?

Surveillance capitalism and the AI revolution were able to “sneak up on us” with little debate, and now our personal data is routinely sold to third parties and can influence everything from loan eligibility to what job postings we see, Naomi Klein writes in her new book “Doppelganger.”

But Google, Meta, and other members of the so-called Big Tech board have borrowed a page from the thick books of Big Oil and Big Tobacco firms.

As Michael Mann has convincingly demonstrated in his 2021 book “The New Climate War,” fossil fuel companies have for decades funded shady research on what causes climate change, attempting – fortunately, quite unsuccessfully – to deflect blame and delay action on slowing global warming.

Universities, of course, haven’t been immune to big tobacco firms, either. For instance, Duke University was founded in 1930 primarily due to funds from James B. Duke’s tobacco business, and through such philanthropy, the devastating harm from cigarettes was mitigated for decades.

Big Tech is also doling out donations on a massive scale, at least in the United States. It’s not illegal, but this type of charity is not strictly altruistic – in reality, technology companies are buying silence, or at least softer, less impactful criticism of their sins.

What happened at Harvard?

Donovan might’ve merely highlighted an issue that’s not entirely new. But the researcher didn’t mince her words.

With her team at Harvard’s Technology and Social Change Research Project (TASC), Donovan analyzed thousands of documents, allegedly exposing Facebook’s knowledge of how the platform has caused significant public harm.

The documents were collected by Frances Haugen, a former Facebook product manager. They formed the basis for The Wall Street Journal’s famous investigative series called “The Facebook Files,” which was published in late 2021.

Donovan even began publishing the documents to Harvard’s website for anyone to access. But then, she says, a campaign to purge her and stifle the research kicked off and the project was soon closed down.

Why? Well, at least the researcher says her work became a threat to Harvard’s treasured donor relationship – the university was finalizing the largest donation the Harvard Kennedy School had ever received, $500 million from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI).

Priscilla Chan is, of course, the wife of Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive of Meta, Facebook’s parent company. The Zuckerbergs are both Harvard alumni.

This, of course, doesn’t prove any wrongdoing. However, in the legal filing with the US Education Department and the Massachusetts Attorney General, Donovan says: “There are a handful of tried and true means to coerce someone or some entity to do something they would not otherwise do, and influence through financial compensation is at or near the top of the list.”

The growing footprint

Research shows Donovan might be right. Whistleblower Aid, a Washington-based organization that helped the expert put together the filing, said: “We’ve seen in the past how Big Tobacco, Big Energy, and Big Pharma have succeeded in influencing, undermining, and co-opting research to protect their lies, their profits and evade accountability.”

According to a new study by the Tech Transparency Project (TTP), a nonprofit watchdog group studying the tech industry, Big Tech is following the same playbook.

Zuckerberg alone has donated money to more than 100 university campuses through either Meta or his personal philanthropy arm, the group says.

Meta hashtags
Meta is donating hundreds of millions to academic institutions around the US. Image by Shutterstock.

Other firms are also funding new academic centers, paying out grants to professors, and, of course, occupying seats on advisory boards typically reserved for donors.

The growing footprint of CZI and Meta in higher education has led to growing questions from students and faculty concerned about corporate influence and data privacy. In 2022, for example, an op-ed in Harvard’s student newspaper took issue with the $500 million donation.

Back in 2021, a paper by University of Toronto and Harvard researchers showed that Silicon Valley’s clout is most apparent among computer science professors at such top schools as the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Toronto, Stanford, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The same paper claims that most computer science professors at these institutions had taken money from the tech industry, including nearly six out of ten artificial intelligence scholars. Besides, many of these academics had previously worked for tech giants as their employees or contractors.

“We believe that it is vital, particularly for universities and other institutions of higher learning, to discuss the appropriateness and the tradeoffs of accepting funding from Big Tech, and what limitations or conditions should be put in place,” said the authors of the paper.

Funding could be diversified

Sure, most academics say their work is independent of the companies funding it, and the journals publishing their studies have ethics rules.

But dozens of professors recently told The Washington Post that tech companies actually wield enormous “soft power” because they control funding and, just as importantly, access to exclusive data that academics are hungry for.

From tech giants’ perspective, the arrangement seems pretty convenient – they pay for the research of the very people in a position to criticize them, often rightly so. And who actually wants to attack the treasurer who’s paying the bills?

“They pay for the research of the very people in a position to criticize them,” said Hany Farid, a UC-Berkeley professor in computer science and at the School of Information. “It’s what the oil and gas industry has done with climate change, and it’s what the tobacco companies did with cigarette research.”

While these donations can significantly advance research and innovation, balancing them with maintaining academic integrity and independence is crucial, Aldi Agaj, the founder of Alter Leaning, an education platform, told Cybernews.

“We must be alert against any potential influence that could skew research outcomes, considering the importance of unbiased and independent academic inquiry, especially in the fields of public policy and societal well-being,” said Agaj.

"Limiting how much funding a department can receive from a single corporate source can prevent overreliance and maintain diverse funding sources,”

Sani Abdul-Jabbar

Michal Kierul, the chief executive of INTechHouse, a Polish technology company, agrees and says that the potential for bias in tech-focused research is real and should be acknowledged.

He says a balanced approach would be best because donations from tech giants do provide vital resources.

“Universities should diversify their funding sources to minimize dependence on any single entity. Collaborations with tech companies should be transparent, with clear boundaries set to preserve academic integrity,” said Kierul.

“It's not just about whether academics can be paid by companies like Meta or Google. It's about ensuring that their research and teaching remain free from undue influence.”

Welcome to the real world

Overall, it’s not a bad idea to always be wary of corporations pouring money into contentious areas of study – especially when the research, if it were truly independent, would probably disrupt the Big Tech way of life.

On the other hand, corporate funds can propel research that wouldn’t be feasible otherwise. Education always needs money – it’s rarely funded well enough – while researching things like AI development and its impact can be mind-bogglingly expensive.

Meta’s spokesperson, David Arnold, told The Washington Post recently that the company’s donations to academic institutions are designed to “better understand our platforms’ impact. He stresses that Meta wants the research to be “rigorous and unbiased.”

According to Sani Abdul-Jabbar, founder and CEO of VezTek, a Los Angeles-based tech company, full disclosure could work. He’s adamant that academics paid by companies like Meta or Google should fully disclose these relationships.

“Besides, limiting how much funding a department can receive from a single corporate source can prevent overreliance and maintain diverse funding sources,” he told Cybernews.

However, some are perfectly content with Big Tech’s involvement in academic institutions. Gabriela O’Mullan, a full-stack developer, told Cybernews that she believes having professors with hands-on experience in successful businesses like Google or Facebook was “not only unproblematic but highly beneficial.”

“These professionals bring a wealth of real-world experience and practical knowledge to the academic environment which is invaluable for students preparing to enter the workforce,” said O’Mullan.

“While it's important to maintain a critical eye on the influence of corporate funding in academia, we should also recognize and welcome the unique benefits that industry professionals bring to the educational landscape. Their practical experience, when

coupled with academic rigor, can lead to a more dynamic, relevant, and forward-thinking educational experience.”

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