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Summers Dreams of Boston as Biotech Center

Larry Summers thinks big. Lately though he’s been thinking big about small things.

Scientists’ understanding of cells, chromosomes and genes is already catalyzing an explosion in biology, Summers says, and the president wants Harvard and Boston to capitalize mightily on the opportunity this explosion presents.

Summers imagines a Silicon Valley East—for biomedical research—rising on both sides of the Charles. Just as Stanford provided the minds, the labs and even the land to spur on the development of computer technology in Silicon Valley, Summers wants Harvard to play the central role in the coming revolution.

Summers’ dream is a wide ranging one.

It’s a vision with academic goals. Cooperation and interdisciplinary approaches will be needed to tackle the intellectual problems posed by the coming revolution, he says.

It’s a vision with physical goals. Science needs space, and even after years of building within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), it needs more. Summers is willing to pay for this future, and has some idea of where he can find the space—in Allston, Harvard’s new campus for the 21st century.

And it’s a vision that by definition goes beyond Harvard in its scope. What excites outsiders, from Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino to MIT scientists, about Summers’ vision is that it calls for the creation of a fertile climate for the growth of the biotechnology industry.

And the potential for even greater University involvement in the private sector exists as well.

What is uncertain about the vision is whether Summers can pull it off.

One problem with such a wide-ranging view is that so many aspects are likely to be met with opposition.

Summers’ predecessor Neil L. Rudenstine tried for a decade to foster greater cooperation across departments—to mixed results at best.

Summers may have in Allston the space needed for the University and biosciences’ expansion, but early talk proves that getting anyone to consider using the land is no easy task.

And while Boston seems well positioned for the anticipated explosion in biotechnology, similar booms have fizzled and it is far from clear that professors will be enthusiastic about this part of Summers’ vision.

Come Together

One of Summers’ first references to this new Silicon Valley came in front of a medical school audience at the Harvard- affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center this November.

“I am convinced that the next Silicon Valley...will happen in the biomedical area, will happen in the technology and in the products that relate to extending and improving the quality of human life,” Summers says.

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