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Opinion | Lawrence H. Summers

Ensuring Boston’s leadership in biomedical research

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You don’t have to be my age to remember when Route 128 powered the “Massachusetts Miracle” — the regional computer-technology boom created by first-rate science education and visionary entrepreneurship. And you don’t have to be a cancer survivor (as I am) to see in contemporary biomedical research the prospect of miracles in medicine powering a Boston-based biomedical boom.

Medical research has made staggering progress in saving lives and reducing human suffering. For the last 50 years, life expectancy has increased by more than three hours every day. This is very real for me. I had cancer when I was 30, and I was successfully treated. Subsequently, through research, I learned that my treatments had been developed only 10 or 15 years before 1984, when I was diagnosed. So I have a very keen sense of the importance of the work underway here in Boston. That is why investing in life sciences was a major priority for me when I was president of Harvard, and today I still believe more can and should be done to fully exploit the potential of biomedicine, both for Boston and for the world at large.


Within a five-mile radius of Harvard Square, there is more biomedical research talent than in any city in the world. Our universities and hospitals are second to none. We are a hot spot for biotech and pharma. And increasingly, within and across our universities and hospitals, we have created institutions that foster collaboration in support of world-changing missions. I was lucky enough to be present at the creation of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, at a time when the federal government was blocking stem cell research, and to see the Wyss Institute, which brings together the disciplines of biology and engineering, begin to take shape.

But there is so much more that can be done if we are to build on our strong foundation. Yes, science depends on sparks of individual creativity. And business relies on the success, vision, and drive of entrepreneurs. But no genius, no entrepreneur, not even any institution succeeds alone. Newton, after all, said that if he had seen further than others it was because he stood on the shoulders of giants.


We need a public policy environment in this city, this state, and this country that is supportive of the fundamental progress that biomedical research can bring. For Boston, that means making sure that, at a time of great competition, there exists the housing, the schools, and the transportation networks that enable this to be a hugely desirable place to live for the community of scholars, scientists, and entrepreneurs that can push biomedical progress forward.

For this state, it means assuring a public policy framework in which our outstanding hospitals can thrive, prosper, and have the resources necessary to devote to developing the treatments of tomorrow, and developing the next generation of national leaders in health care. That does not mean blank checks for our great medical centers, or any lack of cost consciousness. It does mean recognizing that heavy-handed regulation or overly rigid reimbursement schemes are serious mistakes. Any short-run savings would be dwarfed by the longer-term costs of putting our leadership in the fields of patient care, medical education, and fundamental research at risk.

And for the federal government, we need to recommit ourselves as a nation to providing sufficient support to seize this moment in biomedical research. James Watson discovered the structure of DNA when he was 28. Einstein discovered the theory of relativity when he was even younger. It is tragic that, because of budget reductions, the average age at which biomedical researchers get their first independent research grant is now over 40.


Make no mistake about the stakes in all of this for Greater Boston. The first, and ultimately less important stake, is the economic one. If you had asked a group of people at Harvard Business School in 1978 where the hub of future innovation around information technology would be, there would have been a clear and universal prediction that it would happen around the Boston area and Route 128. But we lost — not half, not two thirds, but essentially all of it to Silicon Valley. Why? Some of it was luck in where individual geniuses located. Some was university strategy: Stanford was excited about entrepreneurship, while Harvard fixated on conflict-of-interest risks. And some was public policy. Entrepreneurial innovation on the West Coast has stimulated a culture that emphasizes a presumption of permission rather than a presumption of prohibition. We cannot afford to repeat our past mistakes.

But even more important than the economic stakes are the lives we can save. While there is much to celebrate in what has been accomplished in terms of the potential for biomedical research to transform the world, I would contend we are only in the second or third inning. Millions of lives can be saved in the years and decades ahead. Boston can be to this century what Florence was to the 15th century: not the richest or most powerful, but the city, through its contribution to human thought, that shines the brightest light into posterity.

Lawrence H. Summers is Charles W. Eliot University Professor and president emeritus at Harvard University and former US Treasury secretary.