In this post, I will be focusing on one specific aspect of Jeffrey Epstein’s association with the MIT Media Lab. I feel somewhat uneasy focusing on just one specific aspect, since there are so many other big issues, challenges, and concerns. I feel sick when I think about Epstein’s crimes and their terrible impact on so many lives. I am disturbed that such an individual was able to get involved with MIT, and I want to see changes to the policies and practices that allowed it to happen. And I want to contribute to rebuilding trust and improving the culture at the Media Lab, which has been my academic home for the past 30 years.
In this post, though, I feel it is important for me to address directly the question of funding for Scratch, the children’s programming language and online community which has been developed and managed within my Lifelong Kindergarten research group over the past 16 years.
Some people have wondered whether any of Epstein’s funds were used to support Scratch (and, unfortunately, some false information online has added confusion on this issue). I want to state unequivocally that Scratch and ScratchJr never received any funding from Epstein or any of his organizations. I know this to be true, since I have directed the Scratch project since its inception in 2003, and I have overseen the records for all funds that flow into the project. No funding from Epstein ever went to my research group or any of our projects, and I never had any interactions with him.
The issues around Epstein’s funds have highlighted the importance of transparency in research funding. Within my own research group, we are in the process of putting together a public listing of all donors and contributors to my research group over the past 20 years, so that everyone can see where we get our funding.
Update (September 7, 2019): Today, Joi Ito resigned as Director of the MIT Media Lab. But we must continue to focus on changing the policies, practices, and culture that allowed MIT and the Media Lab to associate with someone like Epstein.
Update (November 2019): The list of donors to the Lifelong Kindergarten research group over the past 20 years is now available.
Update (January 2020): The law firm Goodwin Procter issued a report of their investigation into Jeffrey Epstein’s interactions with MIT. The investigation found that Epstein had falsely claimed to support ScratchJr, and it concluded that “Epstein did not actually donate any funds to the ScratchJr project” (pp. 28–29).