, 51 tweets, 9 min read Read on Twitter
Ok kiddos let's do this. Time to talk about my pretty-minimal-but-still-REALLY-WEIRD brushes with the MIT Media Lab.

Two things happened.

One, I applied for a job there about 2 years ago.

Second, around that time I went to the Atlantic Ag Tech panel, featuring some MIT Media Lab folks.
Around two years ago the MIT Media Lab announced a job posting. It was a WILD AND CRAZY job posting because they're a WILD AND CRAZY lab!
MITML really bills itself as a modern Bletchley Park. You know, the lab where the Allies threw cryptographers and even non-cryptographers together in a desperate bid to unlock the Enigma machine so they could read German messages.
In keeping w that, the job ad was v odd for academic research.

• No stated discipline

• You don't even need a doctorate!

• You did need an "unconventional take that doesn't respect disciplinary boundaries,"

• and a record of communicating science with the public.
Now a couple things about my career that you need to know.

I graduated with a DPM*- not PhD- in 2011, during the depths of the recession & a federal hiring freeze. I was fuuuuuuucked.

*DPM = Dr of Plant Medicine, it's like a veterinarian for crops.
That was a time when the ag industry- Bayer & Syngenta et al- were SCREAMING that they absolutely needed more STEM grads STAT.

Except they weren't actually hiring, bc recession. And nobody knew what was happening w the Farm Bill & future of the ag industry bc gov't shutdown.
So they're yelling "please send us more people" but you could barely get an interview, and once you did, you didn't hear back.

So I got a postdoc by the skin of my teeth, and started building a consulting business. This is pretty common for crop scientists.
Just due to who my first couple of clients were, I wound up specializing in food safety and general facility-having-its-shit-together-ness for greenhouses and indoor farms.
I went from beyond-broke grad w no prospects in a shitty economy, to a national-level consultant w no debt, at the intersection of ag, tech, & manufacturing- 3 extremely male-dominated fields.

There's a reason I'm really confident, y'all. I am very, very good at my job.
Pretty soon I was one of the people with the most real-life logistics & systems analytics experience in the entire indoor ag industry.

I worked with my clients on HR, cold chain logistics, hygiene, water chemistry, bugs, site security, equipment & facility design, worker safety.
If it was in that weird part of indoor ag that nobody understands where you actually make food- I did it.

Companies technically hired me for food safety but soon realized there were all these *things* in their facilities that weren't being taken care of. So I filled the gaps.
So. When the MIT Media Lab said "We don't even care what you do! We just want you to be interdisciplinary & good at words!"

I thought, huh. I do hella interdisciplinary real-world stuff every day, & it's mostly about talking w people to bring their different skill sets together.
So I leaned tf in and got to know the Media Lab's work. They already had a lab that did indoor ag. I figured hey, let's see if I've got anything to add to this lab?

Hoo boy.
The Media Lab's indoor farm lab was basically centered around this fancy 2-cubic-foot lucite box called a "food computer." The idea was you can program temperature, water/fertilizer routine, lighting, etc into it, plant seeds, & make EXACTLY the plants you wanted.
There's only one problem.

I used to work with room-sized versions of these.

Back in 2001.

They're called growth chambers, they'd been standard plant physiology research tools for decades, & they ain't new at all.
But that's pretty standard-level bullshit for the tech space. I mean, Lyft "invented" the motherfuckin bus. That's just what happens when rich people think "dropped out of engineering school" means "expert on all the things."
So in the application, I focused on what I could do for them.

I said "Listen. This food computer thing is super cute. But if you want to make something commercializable [which is ostensibly the entire point of the MITML], hire me. I got you."
I didn't get the post, which isn't too surprising. They probably got hundreds of applications for it. Who's to say they even wanted another indoor ag person- it's a really tiny subniche, and maybe they really just wanted to make more robots.
I was in fact pretty ok with not getting the job because the more I looked into the lab the more ... weird it was. Working in an office with all-glass walls sounds hellacious for one thing. Of course they have bad architecture, they're rich 😂
Then I went to the Atlantic Ag Tech summit & readers, it was not good.

It's one of the first things I ever really tweeted about, had maybe 20 followers at the time, & I was already SO SALTY.

I could not believe the stupid shit that was getting preached off this stage.
The moment when I kinda gave up on hoping for anything was when a panelist brought up land-grant schools.

You know, the one that's done ag R&D for 150 years in the US? The largest university system in the world? That one.
Someone asked "where are we going to find scientists who can innovate ag?" & this panelist brings up the land-grant system

like it's a hole-in-the-wall restaurant that she just found, nobody knows about it yet, but it's SUPER AUTHENTIC and ALL THE LOCALS GO THERE.
My fool ass even still tried to be polite about it.

To be continued.
I spent the next 2 years sporadically annoyed that someone got an MIT program director gig, seats on big fancy boards, & a TED talk

when their big initiative was a toy version of tech that was already antiquated when I'd worked with nearly 20 years ago.
Every so often I'd run across an article about the Food Computer & there's usually a line in there about how "We can even program the plants to taste stronger or milder by changing environmental conditions!"
Yeah no shit. Higher temperatures, less watering, and/or higher salt content in the nutrient water makes plants make more flavor compounds.

We've known that since the 19-mothafuckin-80s! It's hydroponics 101.
And then the other day, this news came out.

Y'all might have missed it because it broke at the same time as the Epstein/Joi Ito news

but it turns out this toy version of a growth chamber DOESN'T EVEN WORK.
It couldn't grow plants.

When donors & investors came by they had to go to Home Depot, buy 4-packs of basil plants, flick off the dirt, and pop them in the Food Computer to make it look like they grew there.

Now. I don't know this dude from Adam and I'm not saying he personally took Epstein money, bc who knows.

But I *am* saying that a Media Lab complex that feeds off a sugar daddy might not be terribly motivated to. like. make tech that actually works.
Most labs make their $ commercializing technology.

Now there are plenty of problems with that business model, like "who's going to do R&D for rare diseases that only 3 people have?"

But the food computer didn't even meet THAT low bar.
The reporting on Media Lab's relationship with Epstein frames it as reputation laundering. Epstein gives money, gets respectability, MIT-ML gets money.

And that's absolutely what appears to have been going on.

But I think there's more to it, that nobody's talking about.
There's a really fine line between science philanthropy & straight-up Sugar Daddy Science*, and MIT-ML and Epstein sure found it.

*h/t @moorehn
"Sugar daddy science" is not a metaphor here.

I mean an actual sugar daddy & sugar baby situation. Epstein wasn't just buying respectability with his science funding.

He was literally acting out eugenic sex fantasies. That's why he funded science & not, say, the humanities.
When normal folks got the labcoat kink, they just roleplay it out at the local bordello or w/e.

The difference is Epstein could actually afford entire labs, in addition to whatever power trip got him onto sex with young girls & "seeding the human race with his DNA."
I think the best lens to understand what was going on here isn't just "reputation laundering."

The Media Lab's leadership catered to a superiority fetish in exchange for cash.

That's 👏 sex 👏 work 👏
And I want to be really clear that the problem here isn't that sex work was happening.

If homeboy just wanted to play "seeding the human race with my DNA" with some honest hardworking grown-ass sex workers, THAT'S GREAT. Support your local artisans. God knows he had the money.
The problem is, I mean, above & beyond his known record of trafficking minors, is that also eugenics is wrong. Taking science funding from "philanthropists" with a known interest in eugenics is BAD, DUH.

Let me repeat. This scandal is not just that MIT-ML took money from a known human trafficker.

They took money from a known eugenicist. Don't let that get buried.

They launched a "Disobedience Award" for "science that doesn't care about society's norms." 🙃🙃🙃
And most of all, it kind of looks to me like they also might have tolerated obviously crap projects- because their business model was more about playing to rich men's fantasies about science

than it was about actually doing science.
Again, I don't know the specifics of that lab's underwriting. I don't actually think it's that likely that the food computer lab had much to do directly with Epstein money.

But I wondered for YEARS how they got funding to just obviously dick around like that.
Then it turned out to not only have a fatally flawed premise

but was also straight-up fraud.

You don't get that in a research institution with ANY kind of commitment to due diligence.

The entire program was sloppy. 'Cause who needs discipline when you got sugar daddy money?
The worst part is I let it get in my head. I KNEW I knew more than these folks about indoor ag.

But so what? They were the ones with the board seats, the National Geographic Explorer position, the name recognition, the funding, the glass-walled office.
I was pretty open about it to people I know, but I didn't exactly come out publicly and say "Hey world I think the MIT Media Lab food computer is a bullshit waste of money."

What good would that have done? That'd just be some twitter rando yelling about sour grapes.
But now that y'all have started seeing exactly what I've been seeing these past two years, I want to make sure we don't lose this teachable moment.

Epstein didn't just wreck girls' lives.

He didn't just try to popularize eugenics.

He derailed science.
*The wrecking girls' lives is definitely the worst part.

I just want to make sure we don't miss the "derailed science" thing.

Shit pretend science got ahead thanks to the lack of discipline he enabled.

Good science that actually solves real problems got crowded out.
We desperately need good tech on sustainable energy. Food. Clean water. Ecological renovation. Transportation.

And this glamour-brothel of a research institute spent millions on a fucking toy box that doesn't even work.

That is completely inexcusable.
I can guarantee you there's a lot more where this came from. Epstein gave generously to Harvard and other unis that haven't even started to break yet.

Pour one out for all the scientists who can't get real shit funded because administration's too busy strutting for sugar daddy.
That's about all I've got to say about that.

I just want to make sure that if you think a lot of the high-profile science world seems to be useless, stupid crap,


This is my best take on why that is.

It's so much worse than it looks.
Sugar Daddy Science is a disgrace and it needs to die. Pronto. The end.
Missing some Tweet in this thread?
You can try to force a refresh.

Like this thread? Get email updates or save it to PDF!

Subscribe to Dr Sarah Taber
Profile picture

Get real-time email alerts when new unrolls are available from this author!

This content may be removed anytime!

Twitter may remove this content at anytime, convert it as a PDF, save and print for later use!

Try unrolling a thread yourself!

how to unroll video

1) Follow Thread Reader App on Twitter so you can easily mention us!

2) Go to a Twitter thread (series of Tweets by the same owner) and mention us with a keyword "unroll" @threadreaderapp unroll

You can practice here first or read more on our help page!

Follow Us on Twitter!

Did Thread Reader help you today?

Support us! We are indie developers!

This site is made by just three indie developers on a laptop doing marketing, support and development! Read more about the story.

Become a Premium Member ($3.00/month or $30.00/year) and get exclusive features!

Become Premium

Too expensive? Make a small donation by buying us coffee ($5) or help with server cost ($10)

Donate via Paypal Become our Patreon

Thank you for your support!