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Scientific Ambitions

Preliminary land-use plans for campus development in Allston have yet to be subjected to public review and comment (see “Allston Options: Up For Discussion”), but a claim has been staked to a significant chunk of turf. The University’s Task Force on Science and Technology, chaired by Provost Steven E. Hyman, a neurobiologist, on April 28 recommended that a “group of initiatives be clustered together in Allston, within two complexes of approximately 500,000 square feet each.” Each building, when designed, might accommodate three dozen faculty members or more, with their associated postdoctoral fellows, graduate students, and research staff.

The task force focused on “new endeavors”—as opposed to “existing, core science activities throughout the University” in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS), Harvard Medical School (HMS), and Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH). Among the programs proposed for the new venue are chemical biology, systems biology, stem cells, computing, and engineering. A second group of initiatives, less advanced in planning, are designated for seed funding, “with a view to moving them to Allston as soon as it is feasible”: global neglected diseases, microbial sciences, and research on the origins of life. (The report is available at www.provost.harvard.edu.)

Science facilities have long been considered as an anchor for Allston (see “Parallel Universities,” March-April, page 54). In his community letter of October 21, 2003, President Lawrence H. Summers listed “science and technology” as the first of five “programmatic planning assumptions” for development there. He charged Hyman’s task force with “consider[ing] alternative ways in which a powerful critical mass of innovative scientific activity could be created in Allston,” alongside current (and growing) science faculties and facilities in Cambridge and the Boston medical campus.

The task force, whose members include professors and administrators from the three faculties, interviewed scientists throughout the University; solicited ideas for “visionary, collaborative, interdisciplinary science and engineering initiatives”; combed through 70 proposals; and ultimately selected the ventures it thought most promising for realization in Allston. (Other ideas—from the environment to systems neuroscience—are to remain embedded in existing FAS and HMS facilities, in new buildings rising in Cambridge’s “North Yard,” or ultimately in the Longwood space freed up by HSPH’s planned move to Allston.)

Much remains to be done before the ribbon-cutting. For one thing, the new laboratories are expensive, and significant financing (probably debt) will be required. By the current rules of thumb, University planners calculate that excluding land costs and required infrastructure, such buildings cost $350 million to $450 million apiece—more if specialized support facilities are required, and still more to account for inflation a few years hence.

It is reasonable to factor in that lead time. As the task force points out, “We do not yet know precisely where and when buildings will be placed in Allston,” pending Harvard’s proposed plan for the area and its review by Boston. Then, on a fast track, it can take 18 months or more to design a building for even established science programs, and as long for construction. Here, the task force notes that each recommended initiative next requires thorough academic and resource planning: defining faculty and other staffing, space requirements, and funding.

Indeed, these may be the biggest challenges, requiring institutional suppleness alongside the scientific innovations. The task force prioritized interdisciplinary new ventures that commonly fall outside existing boundaries, reflecting the way the scientists involved will collaborate. That raises questions of who should make faculty appointments and pay for them; the affiliation of faculty members based in Allston with other Harvard entities; and the faculty members’ teaching obligations. In a presentation to Harvard Alumni Association directors on February 5, Hyman said the new buildings would have to be flexible in design to support changing scholarly interactions—and the initiatives’ administrative structure would have to overcome rigidities associated with academic departments.

Such issues have, in the past, provoked faculty concern. Professor of physics and of applied physics Daniel S. Fisher has been a vociferous critic of what he sees as misguided science planning. In a February 22 faculty meeting, he asked, “[I]s Allston a place to build theme-park science and make a big splash as fast as possible? And is the obsession with Allston draining energy, focus, and money from essential projects?”

Less heatedly, scientists whose work is not inherently interdisciplinary nor motivated by the task-force goal of “creat[ing] a vibrant science presence in Allston”—among them, some in physics, various chemists, and others—are not much involved in shaping the new ventures. Their concerns focus on evolving their own academic plans and funding their work given flat departmental and federal research budgets. (HMS has been cutting costs in a stern effort to stave off large deficits. FAS, which must shoulder the costs of a debt-financed wave of construction, much of it for three big science buildings, is also staring at red ink.) Starting new, extradepartmental programs will place a heavy demand on the discretionary funds the central administration and deans can dole out, while fundraising and grantwriting ramp up.

Other scientists need to figure out how their work will proceed if departmental colleagues relocate. For example, FAS’s growing Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences—with its computer scholars and others who may interact with the prospective Allston ventures—is now embedded in Cambridge. Chemical biology is established in FAS and HMS. The latter is building its own large systems-biology department (see “Seeing Biological Systems Whole,” March-April, page 67).

Of course, the Harvard Stem Cell Institute scientists (http://stemcell.harvard.edu) need separate labs now to avoid running afoul of federal limits on such research. Given the resources being dedicated to stem-cell science in California and outside the United States, these faculty members cannot get to Allston soon enough.

Some patience is in order. Even under favorable circumstances, these ambitious new facilities won’t be ready for occupancy until 2009 or so. Thus begins the hardest work, replete with fiscal and logistical details, required to realize what Hyman called “unleashing the imagination of our faculty colleagues as they think about Harvard’s role in science and engineering in the twenty-first century.”