Has the M.I.T. Media Lab’s OpenAG Project Sent Us Backwards?

The Lempert Report
November 04, 2019

The Open Agricultural Initiative, called OpenAg for short — is the development of a device known as a personal food computer, a high-tech, climate-controlled mini greenhouse meant to allow crops to thrive in thin air, without soil or sunlight.

We’ve reported on it prior, but the NY Times broke a new story that is sending shockwaves through the halls of the Ivy League institution.  The project is led by Caleb Harper, an architect listed as a principal research scientist on the Media Lab website.  

Four researchers who worked on OpenAg said in interviews with The New York Times that Mr. Harper had made exaggerated or false claims about the project to its corporate sponsors, a group that included the retail giant Target, as well as in interviews with the news media.

The former OpenAg researchers said that the food computers did not work as well as Mr. Harper said they did, adding that he often presented speculative claims as scientific truths while raising funds. In a recent interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education, Mr. Harper defended himself against that accusation, saying that he had not misled anyone and that his statements about the project were meant to describe his vision for its future.

The four former researchers said that those who worked on the project were often told to make the food computers appear to work better than they did during promotional photo shoots or visits from the lab’s sponsors or the news media.

Paula Cerqueira, a former special projects manager at OpenAg, said  “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,” Ms. Cerqueira said. “I think that line was stepped over a number of times.”