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See Inside September 2011

The Best and the Brightest

New York City's bid to attract science talent could serve as a model for other cities



Illustration by Thomas Fuchs

Two hundred years ago it was enough to rely on natural advantages to build a great city. Cities were built on the intersections of rivers or along gentle bays that launched commerce and trade on mighty oceans. Those days are long gone. Today our greatest competitive advantages are the qualities that attract the best and brightest from around the world to come here: our freedom, our diversity, our tolerance and our dynamism.

New York became the world’s greatest city because New Yorkers dared to dream it and build it. Today we are looking far into the future once again—and launching one of the most promising economic development initiatives in the city’s long history.

This summer we released a Request for Proposals to universities to provide prime New York City real estate, plus up to $100 million in infrastructure upgrades, in exchange for a university’s commitment to build or expand a world-class science and engineering campus here in our city.

This is not the first time government has offered land and funding in exchange for university development. In 1862 the U.S. government created a land grant program for the creation of new universities. President Abraham Lincoln and Congress sought to promote innovation and expertise in agriculture and engineering—because they knew those fields were critical to the nation’s economic growth. Cornell University, M.I.T., the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Michigan and many other major universities grew out of that land grant program, and along with them came pioneering discoveries that helped America become the world’s largest economy.*

For most of our history, New York City was the technology capital of the U.S. and of the world. When Robert Fulton built the first commercially viable steamship in 1806, he spawned a shipping industry that would employ countless New Yorkers for generations to come. The discoveries and innovations of Fulton, Samuel Morse, Charles Pfizer and Alexander Graham Bell, among many others, fueled the industries that employed generations of New Yorkers. We became the country’s economic engine because our entrepreneurs were the most innovative, and their ideas and investments built our city into a global powerhouse.

But despite that legacy of innovation, like most American cities, New York struggled in the face of fundamental changes to the national economy. In expanding New York’s applied science capabilities, what we are proposing is our most ambitious attempt yet to counteract a decades-long economic trend that once threatened the very future of American cities.

Between 1966 and 2001, New York City went from about 800,000 jobs in manufacturing to about 150,000. Three out of every four jobs were lost—most of them middle-class jobs that did not require a college degree. Although New York fared far better than the nation as a whole, at the same time our economic health became ever more dependent on Wall Street’s booms and busts.

When I came into office in 2002, we committed to diversifying New York’s economy, and when the markets collapsed in 2008 we made a decision to double-down on that strategy. We held meetings with industry leaders in every major sector of our economy to understand what more we could do to help. We asked CEOs, entrepreneurs, university leaders, and other major employers what their key needs were—and the most common refrain we heard was: technology capacity is critical to our growth—and there is just not enough of it here.

In the past several decades, places such as Boston and Silicon Valley had surpassed New York as America’s innovation hub. That trend, however, is reversing. Last year we passed Boston to become the second-largest recipient of venture capital funding for technology start-ups, behind only Silicon Valley. Boston leaped ahead of us historically, mostly for one reason: the strength of its research institutions, especially M.I.T. Every year researchers there develop technological advances that are spun off into new businesses. In fact, active companies founded by M.I.T graduates generate annual revenues of about $2 trillion. That’s roughly equal to the GDP of Brazil, the seventh-largest economy in the world.

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