Boston’s Blessing: A Cluster of University-based Research Activity

Most practitioners who have been in the tech-based economic development field long enough know the presence of a strong research university can make the job much easier. New innovations and technologies to commercialize through licensing and spinoff companies, research facilities and experts to partner with local companies, and a constant supply of fresh graduates for the workforce are just a few of the benefits a research institution can offer the local and regional economy.

Imagine, then, the benefits – and challenges – of having a cluster of research universities conducting more than $1.5 billion worth of research annually in one area, approximately 97 percent of which is funded by federal and other non-local sources. The infusion of so much scientific and engineering activity should help any community weather the current economic crisis and be positioned for the next boom. The challenge for public policy makers and local tech-based economic development programs would be to minimize the export of so much opportunity.

A new report reveals the eight largest academic research institutions in Greater Boston – Boston College, Boston University, Brandeis University, Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Northeastern University, Tufts University and University of Massachusetts Boston – could play a key role in the region’s economic recovery by continuing to expand knowledge and technology that creates new industries and jobs.

Engines of Economic Growth details the universities’ economic and social impact in 2000 and 2002. In 2000 alone, the study finds research conducted at the one public and seven private universities resulted in 264 patents, 280 commercial licenses of technology, and 41 start-up companies. While more than $1.5 billion on research was conducted at the selected schools in 2000, research performed at affiliated hospitals and institutes pushed the total over $2.5 billion.

Research and technological developments at the universities contribute to creating and growing local industries such as computing, information technology, medical devices, biotechnology and genetics, the report states.

International companies such as Amgen, Cisco, Merck, Novartis, Pfizer and Sun Microsystems, the report notes, are locating major facilities in the area to gain access to the scientific talent associated with the research universities and their affiliated hospital and research institutions concentrated in the Boston area.

In addition, the study identifies the schools’ much broader economic and social impact: a $7.4 billion boost to the regional economy; work for 48,750 university employees and 37,000 other workers in the region; a talent pool of more than 31,900 graduates, many of whom stay in Boston; continuing education for 25,000 non-degree students; and, numerous programs to help local K-12 schools and individual students.

To make greater contributions to the Boston area economy, the researchers say the eight universities and the region at large must meet several key challenges. They need to secure a long-term commitment at the federal level to fund basic and applied research, amidst competing fiscal pressures, and they must acquire more space for research and educational activities. In addition, support for entrepreneurial activity and the region’s young learners must be continued. Effective collaboration among Boston-area universities, officials and communities also is necessary, the report concludes.

Engines of Economic Growth is available at:


Copyright State Science & Technology Institute 2003. Information in this issue of SSTI Weekly Digest was prepared under a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Department of Commerce, Economic Development Administration. Redistribution to all others interested in tech-based economic development is strongly encouraged — please cite the State Science & Technology Institute whenever portions are reproduced or redirected. Any opinions expressed in the Digest do not necessarily reflect the official position of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

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