boston.com News your connection to The Boston Globe
2017

America's Science City

No small task, but in order to thrive, Greater Boston must fight to become...

Craig Mello, a Nobel Prize recipient and a professor of molecular medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, recently received visitors from Google Inc. at his lab on the school's Worcester campus. "They're interested in genomics, because it's so information- intensive," Mello told me a few days after the March meeting. "So I talked about how someday, you'll log onto Google genome and compare your own genome with other people's, and maybe get information about what you should be doing and eating." Mello's vision for healthy living so excited his visitors that one of them immediately jumped online to apply for a "Google Genome" trademark.

Today's innovation economy is dependent upon interactions like this. Scientists and engineers cluster with entrepreneurs and financiers around top-notch research institutions, making connections that generate new ideas and profitable new enterprises. It is an economy highly concentrated in a small number of compact regions worldwide, and Greater Boston has clearly established itself as one of them. This is no minor achievement -- the economic outlooks of metropolitan regions everywhere are very much linked to leadership in these sectors.

Where is Greater Boston on the leadership board? High, and Governor Deval Patrick two weeks ago set the bar higher by proposing $1 billion in scientific research funding that he said would let the state provide "the global platform for bringing your innovations from the drawing board to the market, from inspiration to commercialization, from ideas to cures." Rankings of innovation prowess combine upward of 20 indexes, ranging from the number of advanced-degree holders to the level at which city services are dispersed using information technology. And Massachusetts has topped a few of these lists in recent years, including the State New Economy Index released this February by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. "One could make a strong case that Massachusetts is one of the states that is best positioned for 10 years out," foundation president Robert Atkinson says.

But there are gaps, as well. On a key 2005 Milken Institute ranking of the top 200 places for job creation and retention, Massachusetts appears four times, but the highest is only at 75 (Providence/ New Bedford/Fall River). Worcester was 103, Springfield 152, and Metropolitan Boston 157. Maintaining and building upon Greater Boston's lofty status as a "science city" will depend on our ability to fix or mitigate a number of such conditions.
Because high housing costs are hurting Greater Boston's ability to retain its labor force, the growth into extended suburban areas is acting as a pressure-release valve. After all, the State New Economy Index wasn't topped by Cambridge or Boston, or even Route 128 -- it was a blue ribbon shared by Massachusetts as a whole. So, while some planners imagine a strand of innovation running between BioSquare in Boston and Harvard Square in Cambridge, others are thinking more broadly, envisioning a biotech super-corridor anchored on one end in Worcester and the other along Massachusetts Avenue. Timothy McGourthy is Worcester's economic development director, and in his view, "Massachusetts doesn't have a housing problem. It has a transportation problem." Just imagine if a vibrant tech cluster centered on Springfield's Bay- state Medical Center were just an hour and 20 minutes away by high-speed rail.

Michael Tavilla, program manager of research and analysis at the John Adams Innovation Institute, identifies the biggest competitors for Greater Boston as Northern California, Minneapolis, the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, North Carolina's Research Triangle, and Southwestern software upstart Phoenix. As warmer and more affordable areas continue to upgrade themselves for growing economies –- and with international competition encroaching from places like India's Bangalore and Hyderabad -– Boston's dominant standing is in danger if a proactive, rather than a reactive, approach isn't taken. Two examples of recent proactive moves are the first Cambridge Science Festival, which invited local schoolchildren to don safety goggles and peek inside that city's multitude of cutting-edge laboratories, and Boston's idea to beam affordable wireless Internet access to all of its residents.

Meantime, the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce wants tax laws that support innovation industries, which typically favor lengthy routes to profitability. In state government, a new permitting law and streamlined Business Resource Team promise to help communities market properties more aggressively and prepare them for development. And members of a new Massachusetts Life Sciences Collaborative met with Governor Patrick in March, kicking off efforts to coalesce and strengthen the voices of these sectors. "We recognized the life sciences as the future heart-lung machine [of the economy]," says Mitchell Adams, executive director of the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, a quasi-state agency staffing the effort. In March, the coalition initiated movement in nine priority areas, including reducing immigration barriers to help recruit the world's best scientists and easing the way for fledgling companies to put down roots, expand, and manufacture here.

The greatest urgency, however, is still about the annual shrinking of the workforce in this state -- and only this state -- since 2003. "How are we going to convince employers to locate here if they can't get workers?" asks economist Andrew Sum.

Our readiness for -- and vulnerability to -- several major national and international trends will be tested in coming years. The Gallup Poll's recent annual environment survey found Americans' support for government spending on alternative energy research and for tougher, mandatory emission controls has inched forward since 2001; over another decade, these trends could spark new technology industries (and pose new regulatory hardships for existing ones). Although it's too early for comparative data, Adams claims Massachusetts is poised to lead these new energy sectors and describes a future in which our cellphones run on fuel cells, our cars on plant matter, and our state economy on the backs of these industries. Meanwhile, as baby boomers retire and market growth in China and India fuel demand for healthcare products, there will be even greater pressure on the sciences to produce. "We're going to be in trouble in five years if we don't attend to it," says Adams.

Industry observers suggest the innovation capitals of tomorrow will be the regions that embrace change across all aspects of community life. "Massachusetts's Achilles' heel is in cost, congestion, and quality of life," says Atkinson of the Innovation Foundation. "I don't think the sky is falling," he adds, discounting others' dire predictions of economic fallout if the state slips in his rankings. "But that doesn't mean you shouldn't get out there and fix these things."

Kimberly Jones is a writer living in Somerville. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES