Har­vard plans $1 bil­lion sci­ence com­plex to meet stu­dent de­mand

Af­ter stock­pil­ing land for decades, in­sti­tu­tion plans $1 bil­lion sci­ence com­plex. Paul Basken writes

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS - Paul.basken@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­tion.com

If there’s one thing the inim­itable Har­vard Univer­sity would not seem to need, it’s a high-stakes jump into realms where oth­ers al­ready dom­i­nate.

But hav­ing pa­tiently stock­piled far more land in Bos­ton than it owns back in Cam­bridge, Massachusetts, and hav­ing watched am­bi­tious re­search-driven ex­pan­sions by uni­ver­si­ties near and far, Har­vard is tak­ing the leap.

On some 28 hectares (70 acres) of in­dus­trial waste­land just south of its 17th-cen­tury cam­pus, Har­vard is set­ting out to build an in­ter­wo­ven clus­ter of world-lead­ing aca­demic and cor­po­rate sci­ence units in such fields as en­gi­neer­ing, com­put­ing, medicine and busi­ness.

It will be “re­ally the next great in­no­va­tion cen­tre in Amer­ica”, said Paul Karoff, as­sis­tant dean for com­mu­ni­ca­tions and strate­gic pri­or­i­ties in Har­vard’s John A. Paul­son School of En­gi­neer­ing and Ap­plied Sciences, which will be the new project’s ma­jor ten­ant.

The dream – if not the dreamer – is fairly com­mon­place. Com­mu­ni­ties have long hoped to ig­nite prof­itable syn­er­gies by putting knowl­edge-hun­gry in­dus­tries next to re­search univer­sity cam­puses. An iconic exam- ple, North Carolina’s Re­search Tri­an­gle Park, is al­most 60 years old. The US now has about 170 of them na­tion­wide.

As might be ex­pected of the na­tion’s wealth­i­est univer­sity, Har­vard’s ver­sion will not come cheap. Along with the hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars spent on land ac­qui­si­tions over the past cou­ple of decades, the cen­tre­piece of the project in Bos­ton’s All­ston neigh­bour­hood is a $1 bil­lion (£774 mil­lion) sci­ence com­plex set to open in 2020.

Yet de­spite such strato­spheric fig­ures, the risk-to-re­ward ra­tio may be fairly low. First, Har­vard has the money. It has an en­dow­ment of some $40 bil­lion. And to help even more, Har­vard re­ceived $400 mil­lion for the new en­gi­neer­ing and sciences cen­tre from John Paul­son, a hedge fund bil­lion­aire and alum­nus of Har­vard’s busi­ness school.

Sec­ond, the de­mand seems in­sa­tiable. Ken­dall Square, a 12-hectare (30-acre) of­fice zone next to the Massachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy and just over a mile from Har­vard, is so crammed with life sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies that rents have bal­looned to two or three times the rates of down­town Bos­ton.

Ken­dall is so full, Mr Karoff said, “they’re tear­ing down build­ings and putting up taller ones – it is com­pletely sat­u­rated”. Har­vard and the city of Bos­ton have set aside twice as much space for cor­po­rate re­search ac­tiv­ity in the All­ston en­deav­our as Ken­dall now of­fers.

Third, stu­dents badly want it. Har­vard ac­cepts about 2,000 un­der­grad­u­ates a year, and in the past 11 years, the pro­por­tion choos­ing ap­plied math­e­mat­ics, com­puter sci­ence or en­gi­neer­ing has risen from 6 per cent to 20 per cent of the univer­sity-wide to­tal. “We’re bust­ing at the seams” in Cam­bridge, Mr Karoff said. “We’ve con­verted ev­ery broom closet avail­able into a lab or a class­room or an of­fice.”

Mak­ing space for STEM

The shift in stu­dent pref­er­ences to­wards sci­ence and en­gi­neer­ing is cre­at­ing a far greater net need for space than would be cre­ated by growth in other fields. More sci­ence and en­gi­neer­ing stu­dents means more aca­demics and classes, which in turn means more grad­u­ate stu­dents to help teach those un­der­grad­u­ates, which in turn means more lab space to house the grad­u­ate stu­dents.

Har­vard’s cur­rent pres­ence in All­ston, just across the Charles River from Cam­bridge, con­sists pri­mar­ily of its busi­ness school and var­i­ous sports fields, in­clud­ing his­toric Har­vard Sta­dium. The new home for the School of En­gi­neer­ing and Ap­plied Sciences will add al­most half a mil­lion square feet (46,400 square me­tres) of class­rooms, lab­o­ra­to­ries and other fa­cil­i­ties.

And yet that is still not enough space for the en­tire school. The pro­grammes that will move to All­ston in­clude com­puter sci­ence and en­gi­neer­ing, me­chan­i­cal en­gi­neer­ing, ma­te­rial sci­ence, ro­bot­ics and most of elec­tri­cal en­gi­neer­ing. Those re­main­ing in Cam­bridge will in­clude en­vi­ron­men­tal sci­ence and ap­plied physics, which are stay­ing put be­cause of the size and spe­cial­i­sa­tion of their ex­ist­ing fa­cil­i­ties and equip­ment and be­cause of a de­sire to re­main close to col­leagues in re­lated dis­ci­plines.

Many other de­tails be­yond 2020 are tougher to pre­dict. Mr Karoff said that sev­eral spe­cial­i­sa­tions where Har­vard is al­ready for­mi­da­ble could achieve even greater promi­nence in the All­ston en­vi­ron­ment. They in­clude ro­bot­ics, ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence and biotech­nol­ogy.

“We’re not look­ing to be MIT or Stan­ford, which are pro­grammes that are vastly larger in scale and scope,” he said. “But we are cer­tainly look­ing to be on a peer level in terms of qual­ity, and I think in many re­spects al­ready are.”

The rel­a­tively smaller size of Har­vard’s sci­ence and en­gi­neer­ing pro­grammes could even prove an ad­van­tage, Mr Karoff said. They can be more flex­i­ble, giv­ing them scope to adapt and grow, and they are not bur­dened by “legacy” cour­ses such as nu­clear en­gi­neer­ing and pe­tro­leum en­gi­neer­ing that other uni­ver­si­ties still op­er­ate. And the prox­im­ity of the busi­ness school to the sci­ence and en­gi­neer­ing school, he said, could greatly boost stu­dents seek­ing to start new tech com­pa­nies.

Be­yond that, Har­vard an­tic­i­pates that its All­ston ex­pan­sion will serve as a com­ple­ment, rather than a chal­lenge, to MIT and Ken­dall, as well as to other sci­ence-driven ex­pan­sions at and around North­east­ern, Tufts and Bos­ton uni­ver­si­ties.

“It’s one ecosys­tem,” Mr Karoff said. “And it’s an ecosys­tem that is go­ing to con­tinue to grow.”

Ex­ten­sion All­ston, across the Charles River from Cam­bridge, will house the School of En­gi­neer­ing and Ap­plied Sciences

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