New Woes for MIT Media Lab
New Woes for MIT Media Lab

New Woes for MIT Media Lab

Researchers say the Open Agricultural Initiative promoted a high-profile project with misleading claims, and documents show it violated state environmental regulations.

Sep 24, 2019
Ashley Yeager

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In August, the MIT Media Lab came under fire for its financial ties to the convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. Now, the lab is under scrutiny for allegedly promoting its Open Agricultural Initiative with misleading claims and for dumping wastewater containing 20 times the legal limit of nitrogen near Middleton, a suburb of Boston.

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The Open Agricultural Initiative, led by architect Caleb Harper, has been featured in a number of media outlets with the focus on its “food computers,” elaborate, mini greenhouses that appear to grow crops with little air and no soil or sunlight. However, the food computers appear not to be as they seem. Researchers working at the lab have said in several media outlets, including Business Insider, The New York Times, and The Chronicle of Higher Education, that Harper has been playing a charade, misleading corporate sponsors and journalists to believe that the food computers were successfully growing plants when instead the boxes were failing and sometimes staged with plants transplanted from elsewhere.

For example, Paula Cerqueira, a former special projects manager at the initiative tells the Times that before a photoshoot a lab manager told her to buy a lavender plant from a store near the Open Agricultural facility and put it in one of the food computers, making it appear as though the computer had grown it. “When it comes to academic research, because you are seeking funding all the time, there is always a line between projecting vision and misleading people,” she says. “I think that line was stepped over a number of times.”

Another lab member recalls an engineer rigging one of the computers to have the right amount of LED light for a demonstration, according to the Times.

Despite the claim that anyone would be able to use the food computers, a pilot program in Boston schools suggested otherwise. Business Insider reports three boxes were sent to Boston schools. Initially, the students were to set up the boxes themselves but couldn’t, so MIT Media Lab staff helped, and of the three boxes, only one grew plants—and only for a few days before it stopped working. In a second pilot with more than 30 food computers, at most two grew a plant.

The initiative does have a large food computer at the project’s facility in Middleton that did grow plants, but the box did not control the environment as Harper had claimed; there were temperature fluctuations, and there was no way to regulate carbon dioxide, oxygen, or humidity in the container, Babak Babakinejad, a researcher in the lab, tells the Chronicle. Harper was “using the brand of a prestigious institution to promote himself and to express fictitious ideas,” Babakinejad says. “It’s not science. It’s more like science fiction.”

The Times reports that the Media Lab is looking into the allegations. Harper defended himself against the critics, telling the Chronicle, “It’s vision versus reality, and both are necessary. . . . And because I’m so clear on that vision, I think people misinterpret that as reality.”

As if false claims about the food computers weren’t enough, ProPublica and WBUR reported last week (September 20) that the lab is also under investigation by state regulators for violating environmental state regulations because it drained hundreds of gallons of water with nitrogen in excess of the legal limit into an underground disposal well. That nitrogen was part of a fertilizer mixed with water that the lab used to grow plants hydroponically. Babakinejad shared emails and lab results that revealed the state regulation violation. Two anonymous sources confirmed the action.

The dumping is concerning because excess nitrogen in water can have consequences not only for wildlife but also on human health. According to ProPublica and WBUR, no evidence exists to suggest the nitrogen-rich water from the lab have penetrated local drinking water or the Ipswich River.

Ashley Yeager is an associate editor at The Scientist. Email her at ayeager@the-scientist.com.