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MIT halts work of group at under-scrutiny Media Lab

Operations at the MIT Media Lab are again coming under scrutiny.
Operations at the MIT Media Lab are again coming under scrutiny.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

MIT has halted most of the work being done by a prominent but controversial group in its beleaguered Media Lab over concerns that researchers may have skirted recent restrictions that the university placed on them.

Maria Zuber, MIT’s vice president of research, late last week shut down all the off-site work being done by the Open Agriculture Initiative. Zuber, who oversees MIT’s broad scientific efforts, has allowed researchers with the agricultural program to do limited design and document work on the main campus, according to university officials.

After former employees and news reports raised questions about academic misrepresentations and potential environmental violations by the Open Agriculture group, MIT had placed some boundaries on the work, but late last week there was “uncertainty about adherence” said Kimberly Allen, a university spokeswoman.

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Caleb Harper, director of the Open Agriculture Initiative, did not respond to requests for comment. His attorney, David Siegal, referred to MIT’s statements.

This is the latest blow to the MIT Media Lab, a free-wheeling research facility that was once a campus jewel but has been roiled by scandal and unrest since August. That’s when the former director, Joi Ito, revealed that he had taken money for the lab and for his own investment funds from convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.

Ito resigned in September. Two other professors who objected to the Media Lab’s ties to Epstein resigned in protest. And a Media Lab professor was recently removed over violations of the university’s sexual harassment policy.

MIT has hired a law firm to review its dealings with Epstein.

The university is also doing an assessment of the Open Agriculture program.

The agricultural initiative is best known for its food computers, which were pitched as high-technology, temperature-controlled boxes that could grow food faster and in difficult environments. The boxes can vary from the size of home fish tanks to large containers that can fit cotton plants and young trees.

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The food computers have been used by Boston Public Schools and shipped to refugees in the Middle East to help them grow food. Several large companies, including Ferrero, the maker of Nutella, and Welspun Group, an Indian textile company, have financed the Open Agriculture group, according to media reports and contracts reviewed by The Boston Globe.

Harper himself has lectured at the Nobel Foundation and the United Nations World Food Program, traveled internationally to woo MIT’s biggest donors, and drawn headlines in local and national newspapers for the group’s innovations.

But as the Media Lab dealt with the uproar from its Epstein ties, some former employees also raised questions about the effectiveness of the food computers, suggesting that they were far less successful than promoted by Harper and other MIT officials, according to Business Insider and the Chronicle of Higher Education, which first reported on the allegations.

At least one former employee also complained to MIT officials that the lab’s research facility in Middleton was releasing wastewater with higher levels of nitrogen than allowed by its state permit, according to WBUR.

Siegal, Harper’s attorney, previously said that his client was committed to protecting the environment and would cooperate with MIT officials and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection to ensure the lab conforms to the law.

MIT has taken various steps in recent weeks to monitor Harper’s lab. On Sept. 18, Zuber put a temporary hold on the initiative. She later allowed engineering, design, and construction work to continue, but suspended any projects that involved wastewater discharge, as the university conducted its review.

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MIT officials did not say what issues with Open Agriculture drew further concern and to what requirements the group may have failed to adhere.

Harper continued to promote his work even as the university assessed the complaints. In early October, Harper posted a video on Instagram showing periwinkles growing in a large container at the Middleton facility. It is unclear when the video was filmed.

Zuber has said that MIT takes seriously issues of environmental regulation and academic integrity.

Paula Cerqueira, a former special projects manager in Harper’s group who joined in 2017 to work on education initiatives, said MIT needs to do a thorough review of the lab. Cerqueira said she had to buy plants from a garden store for lab photo shoots and that some of the food computers sent to Boston Public Schools didn’t work or required more maintenance than promised.

Many in the group raised concerns previously about Harper with MIT officials, but there is no indication that the issues were addressed, Cerqueira said.

“I still think MIT has done amazing work and will continue to do amazing work,” Cerqueira said. “There are bad apples in the mix, but they need to get rid of the bad apples or do a better job of investigating the bad apples.”


Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.

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