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Innovation, collaboration and renewal – lessons along the Red Line

Boston, Mass.

As prepared for delivery

Speaking earlier this week at the Annual Meeting of the National Academy of Sciences, President Barack Obama could have been speaking directly to those of us gathered here this morning to celebrate the opening of this inspiring new Venture Development Center:

“At such a difficult moment,” the President said, “there are those who say we cannot afford to invest in science, that support for research is somehow a luxury at moments defined by necessities. I fundamentally disagree. Science is more essential for our prosperity, our security, our health, our environment, and our quality of life than it has ever been before.”

As we and our colleagues in universities around the nation consider how to make fewer dollars pay for more, as we attempt to balance yesterday’s commitments with today’s realities and tomorrow’s needs, we must heed that clarion call, and we remember that as we struggle with our own challenges, we are nonetheless being looked to for national and international solutions. I believe we in Massachusetts are uniquely prepared to answer the President’s summons. Through the breakthroughs that result from our research, through our concentration of institutions that are anchored here, and through our shared capacity for collaboration and innovation that helps drive scientific – as well as economic – progress.

It is not by accident that we in Boston, and in Massachusetts, are on sounder economic ground than much of the rest of the nation. As I have noted on previous occasions, Harvard is the second-largest private employer in the Boston area, but we are only a part of a massive higher education sector that is the envy of the world. Statewide, private higher education employs more than double the entire biotechnology sector in Massachusetts. There are 90,000 employees in the Boston metropolitan area employed at private colleges and universities. Add to that the faculty, researchers, and staff at UMass and other public colleges in our state, and the sector totals 100,000. That represents more employees than all of this region’s computer hardware, software and services business (81,000), or, this region’s banking, securities and investment industries combined (86,000).

The power of those numbers explains a Boston Globe report that Massachusetts was spared much of the national economic downturn during 2008– adding jobs and sustaining employment levels above the national rates, thanks to our technology, health, and higher education sectors. In fact, between March 2008 and March 2009, public and private employment at colleges in the Boston Metro area increased by two percent. While we may continue to navigate through uncharted economic waters, in past recessions our university and hospital sector has been a strong moderating force. In 2000 and 2001, while the Boston area overall saw its unemployment rate rise, the area’s eight research universities actually added jobs, softening the blow to our region – and it was the same story in 1990 and 1991. While 2009 has certainly brought challenging news to all of us, while the Boston metro area the education and health services sectors have continued to be a stabilizing economic influence that has protected us from some of the blows that are buffeting other regions of the country.

We are in this enviable position because our institutions – including UMass, Tufts, Northeastern, Boston University, MIT, and Harvard, together form an enormous engine, an engine that is fueled by curiosity and a mission to stretch the boundaries of new knowledge, an engine that drives the Boston area and state economy, an engine bound together by collaborations and innovation, and an engine that must continue to do so in order to ensure not only the region’s future, but our nation’s future. Just how unusual is our community? Consider this:

In 2007, Massachusetts faculty and students received approximately $2.3 billion, or 10% of all extramural research dollars distributed by the National Institutes of Health. Our colleges and universities are magnets for funding from outside sources like the NIH because of the excellence of the faculty and students we attract and we spend those considerable dollars right here in the Commonwealth…

One of the most significant things about our research universities is that they are engines that also produce the fuel – the scientists, physicians, and engineers, the thinkers and ideas … that spur the new products, new jobs, and new companies that will help renew our economy and power the nation’s recovery. Mayor Menino understands this, and his advocacy, along with that of leaders on Beacon Hill, has helped ensure that Boston and Massachusetts will continue to be the world’s leading idea factory, even during these challenging times.

That strategy is working…Just about a month ago, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute announced that it was placing a $200 million, nationwide bet on 50 new Early Career Scientists it will fund for the next six years. Ten of these best of the best, the young men and women whom the Institute believes will be the leaders of the next generation of scientists, come from institutions in our area – three from MIT, five from Harvard, and two from the University of Massachusetts. Think about that for a minute … Twenty percent of those selected nationwide come from a single region, of a single state. Twenty percent of the brightest young biomedical minds in the nation could hop on Red Line to get together for a meeting.

The Red Line, which I rode here this morning, is far more than a subway line, far more than a transportation artery – it is a highly useful reminder of where we have been, and where we are, and where we can go … if we commit to working together to get there.

The Red Line is not just transportation. It connects programs; it connects institutions; and, most important…it connects people…people who are the most efficient translators of ideas, innovation and knowledge; it provides us with a vision of what our community was…what it is…and what it can become. But this unassuming transit line is also a ruby necklace, whose jewels include – to name a few – Tufts, Harvard, Novartis, Amgen, MIT, the Broad Institute, the Whitehead Institute, Massachusetts General Hospital, the Federal Reserve Bank, and, of course, the University of Massachusetts Boston and the Venture Development Center whose creation we celebrate today. Let me offer you a quick illustration of what I mean…a little tour.

As I boarded the train at Harvard Square, I was but a short walk from Harvard’s basic science departments, which have produced knowledge upon which so many of our modern miracles are based. Just a few steps from the Church Street station we have the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, a collaborative that advances science and medicine by bringing together researchers across Cambridge, Boston, and Belmont – linked to the University of Massachusetts through it’s growing stem cell bank. That stem cell bank, created with funding from the state’s Life Sciences initiative, will distribute stem cell lines from our Institute and others to researchers across the world.

Only a few minutes after leaving Harvard Square, we pull into Central Square. Walk down Massachusetts Avenue for a few blocks toward Boston and in addition to moving onto the MIT campus, you come to what was for 56 years the home of the New England Confection Company, a company whose roots go back to 1856. That facility at 240 Massachusetts Avenue is no longer a candy factory. Today, the water tower that was painted to resemble a giant roll of NECCO Wafers bears a double helix – and sits atop the Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research. The completely renovated historic building is now a 500,000 square foot state-of-the-art scientific facility that will eventually hold more than 500 scientists. (And by the way, Mark Fishman, the President of Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research, was a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, and Chief of Cardiology and Director of the Cardiovascular Research Center at the MGH before joining Novartis.)

Next stop: Kendall/MIT: a renowned center of discovery, innovation and collaboration, as much a symbol of 21st century American scientific achievement as Silicon Valley is a symbol of the computer revolution. The biotechs, pharma companies, computer engineering and software visionaries who fill this neighborhood are like iron filings, drawn to the intellectual magnet called MIT. And if I had to single out one institution in the Kendall Square neighborhood that represent both the collaborative ideal, and the heights that can be achieved through collaboration and innovation, I’d point to the Broad Institute. In just a few short years, it has come to symbolize successful cross-disciplinary, and inter-institutional collaborations, collaborations that reach across Harvard, MIT and literally around the world.

A short ride further down the Red Line, we come to one of the great biomedical success stories of the last two centuries. Massachusetts General Hospital has long been one of the nation’s and the world’s leading medical institutions. Today it also is a biomedical research juggernaut of truly breathtaking proportions:

It has close to a million square feet of laboratory research space on three campuses, MGH attracts to the region more than $528.6 million in annual research funding, making it the largest hospital-based research program in the United States. Not only is it a leader in research, it is a leading employer in Massachusetts, with a staff almost 22,000, including 2,800 physicians, 2,300 research scientists and fellows, 3,800 allied health workers, and more than 13,500 support workers … virtually all of whom pay income taxes and buy all manner of goods here in Massachusetts.

Down the line at Park Street, the Red Line reaches one of its points of interconnection: where the Green Line connects our institutions to Boston University, Boston College, Northeastern University and the intellectual ferment of the Longwood Medical area – a center of countless invaluable collaborations.

At this point, because I know I’m running out of time, I am going to cheat just a bit and rush ahead to the JFK Library/UMass Boston stop. Research activity at UMass Boston has increased at a rate nearly double that of other research universities in the area – growing 50% over the past five years, helping to increase the school’s role as an economic engine, generating $558 million in total economic activity in fiscal 2008. Here we also have come full circle – UMass Boston’s McCormack Institute, which provides education and training to government professionals throughout the Commonwealth, with support and in collaboration with our own Rappaport Institute and the Kennedy School.

It also brings us to the Venture Development Center. There is something truly special about the roots of this stunning, 18,000-square-foot facility. For the fact that it began life as that most Old Massachusetts of facilities … a school cafeteria … and has morphed into an incubator in which visionaries can bring their discoveries to the next level, serves as an inspiration for all of us. This is a place where academia and industry can come together to forge the kind of partnerships that are required to take innovative ideas and bring them to market. This Venture Development Center will be a transfer station from academic curiosity and ideas, to practical applications benefiting real people and generating economic vitality. Its work has already begun, and I know that under the leadership of Keith Motley and Jack Wilson, it will be a major contributor to our economic and intellectual landscape. Collaboration will be at the heart of this center, and there is evidence all around us that research collaborations are making a powerful difference. We’re tackling medical problems:

• With $10 million in funding from the Massachusetts Life Sciences Initiative, researchers from Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, UMass Boston, and Harvard Medical School are developing a center for personalized cancer therapy;

• UMass Medical School’s Center for AIDS Research and the New England Regional Primate Research Center are collaborating on an exploration of HIV, malaria and AIDS vaccines;

• A consortium UMass, Tufts, BU and other New England medical schools are collaborating on an effort to develop, implement and evaluate innovative health communication curriculum projects. We’re tackling environmental sustainability:

• The discovery by UMass Amherst professor of microbiology Susan Leschine of the Q Microbe – which has proven to be a minute factory for converting cellulose into ethanol – has lead to the creation of Qteros, a company in Marlborough that may revolutionize how we do everything from fuel our cars to heat our homes by using these microbial energy factors to convert plant waste into fuel;

• A123 Systems, an MIT start-up based in Watertown, has in recent weeks been awarded a contract to produce batteries for hybrid and electric cars.

Finally, I would underscore the enormous potential of the computing collaboration my friend Jack Wilson told you about a few minutes ago. This community-wide effort has the potential to advance countless scientific efforts in ways we can now only imagine…

If our institutions are going to continue to benefit mankind, we need to continually develop the types of collaborations we celebrate today – as one travels the Red Line, it becomes obvious that our greatest strength really lies in sharing with one another the collaborations that create the virtual idea factory I mentioned earlier. We share our findings broadly in order that others can build on our work, … and we translate the products of these efforts so that the public can benefit. Virtually everything the government is struggling to do to move our nation forward ultimately depends upon science, technology, and education – upon discovery, innovation and collaboration. Advancing medical science, developing sources of renewable green energy, preparing our fellow citizens for the next wave of jobs, all require that we respond to the challenges we face today.

This is a crucial moment in the long history of our nation. We are all being called to make sacrifices, and we are all being called upon to work together. This is our challenge: We must decide if we are going to move forward together, or if we are going to fall behind. We must heed the lessons about the power of collaboration and impact so evident along the path of the Red Line and commit to forging and maintaining the connectors that will exponentially multiply the value of our institutions to our cities, our state, and our nation.

So I am proud to be here at U-Mass Boston today to mark the launch of this Venture Development Center, because it symbolizes what Keith Motley, Jack Wilson and all of us have come to understand … that we are vital parts of this unique Massachusetts idea factory.

As President Obama noted Monday, “even in the hardest times, against the toughest odds, we’ve never given in to pessimism; we’ve never surrendered our fates to chance; we have endured; we sought out new frontiers.” The center we celebrate today is one such new frontier. By placing this symbol of collaboration at the center of your work, you remind all of us of its role in meeting our collective mission.