Remarks at the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Thank you for inviting me to cross the river this morning. MIT has a very positive relationship with the city of Cambridge. But “Greater Boston” is our home, too! And I am delighted to be here with you, to think about how we can support innovation together.

For anyone who cares about Greater Boston, this is a moment to think about the future. Over the last 20 years, Mayor Menino has transformed this city. But this fall, Boston chooses a new leader.  Next Tuesday, you narrow the field to two candidates. In November, when you choose between them, you will be making a big decision about Boston’s future.

What kind of a future do we want for Boston? And what will it take to get there?  Right now, the race for mayor is focused on important issues: Crime. Public schools. The costs and benefits of having a casino. But I believe there is one extremely important issue that is not getting enough attention. And that is what we should do to keep our innovation economy running strong.

I know The Chamber works on this all the time. You work with the Mayor, and with Beacon Hill. You lobby Washington. And your leadership paved the way for Greater Boston to become one of the most important hubs of innovation in the world. 

But you work hard at it because you know that our future success is not automatic. Twenty years ago, we had the same great colleges and universities.  We had all the same hospitals. We had most of the same big companies.

But we had nothing like today’s innovation economy!  No one back then described Boston as the “biotech capital of the world.” We know that Greater Boston did not arrive at this exciting place by accident. And if we sit back and relax, we cannot expect the momentum to last.  

I will talk in a moment about one important thing we need to do, together, to sustain that momentum, and ensure an even greater future for Greater Boston.

But first – since we’re thinking about the future – let me talk about some ideas that we’re pursuing at MIT that may change the world – and shape the future. Naturally, we would all love to know what the future will look like. But of course we cannot see the future … not even at MIT! 

Why?  Because innovation transforms. Innovation transforms the familiar knowledge and tools and technologies of today … into the unfamiliar possibilities of the future.

To show how innovation shapes the future, let me offer three quick examples: One from education, one from health care, and one from technology. And in each, this region has the power to make unique contributions – and lead the way.

First – digital learning. 18 months ago, MIT and Harvard launched a new online learning platform called “edX.” It offers full university courses to the world, online, free of charge.  Has anybody here tried them?  They can be fun – but they’re hard! MIT-hard. EdX has already attracted students from all 50 US states, and every country on earth. Globally, our current total is 1.25 million learners.  That’s ten times the number of MIT alumni alive today! Ten times!  We see a tremendous opportunity to magnify our impact, and to help people around the world transform their lives.

At the same time, here at home, we are using these technologies to develop a new kind of blended education – one that combines the best of online and in-person learning. We want to use these tools to make higher education better –in fact, to reinvent it.

In ten years, driven by these technologies, the concept of college will have evolved in ways we cannot yet predict. And those transformations may change the whole equation – increasing access, raising quality – and eventually perhaps even lowering costs.

Now, a second example, from health care: One of the most important trends of our lifetime is something called “convergence.”  It means that the life sciences are converging with the engineering and physical sciences. And together, they are leading to new ideas that are simply mind-blowing.

Take what’s going on at the Ragon Institute, which is trying to create a vaccine against the AIDS virus. It’s a signature Greater Boston collaboration: MIT…  plus MGH… plus Harvard.  At the Ragon Institute, you see engineers, and mathematicians, and physical scientists who never worked on HIV, or anything medical, before. But now they are working side by side with top Boston doctors to study immune response and viral patterns.

One of them is Arup Chakraborty, a professor of chemistry, chemical engineering, physics, and biological engineering at MIT. Arup analyzed HIV sequences from different patients using ideas from Random Matrix Theory -- a tool that has been used to analyze the stock market. He also used concepts from Spin Glass Physics. No one had ever looked at the problem like this before. And he discovered that HIV is not able to make certain combinations of mutations.  Suddenly, they had a new way to attack the virus, by targeting this vulnerability.  Based on this discovery, Arup and Dr. Bruce Walker from MGH have designed an AIDS vaccine -- and it is now being tested in model organisms.

That is very exciting news, on its own. And there is reason to think that these techniques could be deployed to help fight other diseases, too.

One more example, on the technology side: 3D printing. The concept that was pioneered by two faculty members at MIT, Ely Sachs and Michael Cima. They were just trying to solve a problem for themselves: they needed a quick, easy way to make prototypes of their inventions.

And now … 3D printers are everywhere! Maybe even in your basement shop! Maybe at your kids’ school! And the field is moving particularly fast -- because the technology is in the hands of ordinary home users and professionals, at the same time. So lots of people are trying new things.

In a way, this technology is very much at the “play” stage: you can use it to design custom jewelry, or to make replacement parts when your dishwasher breaks down. But its use is accelerating in very serious areas, too. People are experimenting with “printing” replacement-human-organs. Start-ups are using it for rapid prototyping. And it is changing how major companies make their products.


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Digital learning. The search for an AIDS vaccine. 3D printing. All these ideas are just beginning to take off.  We are just starting to see what they can do.  But each of them has the potential to inspire big change. The ability to create transformative ideas like these is why our innovation economy is so powerful. And that’s why we need to work as hard as we can to nurture it. 

Now, these three examples come from very different fields. But they have something important in common: ALL of these ideas grew from, or depend, on federally funded research. 

  • Without the research that our faculty members use to create new knowledge, online learning has nothing to offer. EdX would be an empty stage.


  • Without federally funded research, AIDS will remain a global plague – and the ideas coming out of the Ragon Institute can reach no farther than the limits of one family’s philanthropy.


  • Federally sponsored research led to 3D printing. But without further federal support, to pursue new applications at scale – 3D printing would have remained just a gimmick … a cute idea in someone’s lab.


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So, what do we need to do to sustain this region’s economic momentum? What will it take to ensure a great future for Boston? I believe we need to work together – as an innovation community – to battle the single biggest threat to our future success. And that is the drastic federal budget cuts known as “sequestration.”

As you may know, when it went into effect last March, the sequester imposed harsh cuts across the board – including cuts to all of the Federal agencies that fund scientific research.  The cuts range from 5.1 to 7.3% – and they are set to last for a decade.

That was bad news for Boston-area universities and hospitals: Boston is home to the top five independent hospitals in the country that receive NIH funding. The state receives roughly $2.5 billion a year in federal funding for medical research – and that has now dropped by $125 million a year. The sequester was also bad news for the brilliant young people trying to decide whether a career in science and technology is worthwhile. No question, it will be bad news for our regional economy.

And ultimately, it will be very bad news for the United States – because it will starve our innovation engine.  In fact, some people argue that the sequester is a false economy, because it is creating an “innovation deficit” that we will never overcome. It would be hard to overstate the negative impact on the people, the businesses and the future of Greater Boston – and our nation.

At MIT, we have been talking to Paul Guzzi about The Chamber restarting an effort that was extremely effective in the late ‘90s and early 2000s – an effort called the “National Business Coalition for Research,” which included more than 30 Chambers across the country.

We must get the word through to Congress. And business must be part of delivering the message!  The strategy The Chamber has used to fight for immigration reform can be a model for this effort, too.

If we want to secure a bright future for Greater Boston, I’m convinced that working together on this issue is our best hope for progress. If we do, I feel confident that we can create, together, positive change.

Thank you!