AT THE SAME time that chaos was brewing in the House of Representatives in Washington and our Patriots flamed out to the Cowboys in Dallas and then collapsed to the Saints at Gillette, we also witnessed stunning achievements that help to position Massachusetts for the future. Consider just a few of the historic developments of the past week or two.
Claudine Gay was invested as the first Black woman president of Harvard, America’s oldest university. Dr. Melissa Gilliam, another Black woman scholar, was named president of Boston University, the city’s largest institution of higher education. Drew Weissman, a graduate of Brandeis, was awarded the Nobel Prize for helping to discover mRNA, which unlocked the rapid development of successful COVID vaccines. Professor Moungi Bawendi of MIT received the Nobel Prize in chemistry for his pioneering work on quantum dots. Harvard professor Claudia Goldin earned the Nobel Prize in economics for her groundbreaking research on the workplace gender gap. And the region received designation as a hub of ARPA-H, a multi-billion-dollar commitment that will keep Massachusetts at the cutting edge of basic research and discoveries to address some of the hardest health challenges, like cancer and Alzheimer’s.
These achievements reflect enormous progress in three areas key our future.
First, major institutions in our city and state are for the first time being led by women leaders. It’s no longer your father’s Harvard or MIT or BU. Or Boston Globe or Mass General Brigham or City Hall or governor’s office. In fact, all these strategically important institutions, for the first time, have appointed or elected women at the helm – President Gay of Harvard, President Kornbluth of MIT, President Gilliam of BU, Boston Globe editor Nancy Barnes, CEO Anne Klibanski of Mass General Brigham, Mayor Michelle Wu, Gov. Maura Healey. And many more. Incredible, long overdue, and so promising.
Winning Nobel Prizes may not be anything new for our region, but the transformational intellectual discoveries of Professors Bawendi, Weissman and Goldin help to secure Greater Boston’s place for having some of the world’s richest and most productive soil for basic research discoveries.
Nobel Prizes have been awarded since 1901 to about a thousand recipients worldwide. More than 250 of them were students or faculty at Harvard, MIT, Brandeis, BU and UMass. Our region and state have, in fact, produced more Nobel laureates than all of the United Kingdom and Germany, combined. In a world where research, discovery, and innovation represent the renewable fuel for our future, we are blessed with more Nobel Prize recipients in our small neck of the woods than any other country in the world, other than the United States itself.
ARPA-H may sound like just another federal bureaucracy, but getting the nod as one of three national centers of excellence from the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health is the equivalent of being the investment control center to NASA at the height of the space race and President Kennedy’s moon shot. It helps to anchor our position as the Silicon Valley of life sciences and biotech – already housing research and development activities for 18 of the top 20 biopharmaceutical companies in the world and the headquarters location of 25 percent of the nation’s biotech companies.
Taken together, the sea change at the top of some of the most powerful institutions — with women finally in charge, forward progress in intellectual discoveries that mark our region as arguably the smartest place on earth for basic research, and securing a once-in-a-lifetime commitment to national investment in health discovery and treatment — combine to form a trifecta of foundational strengths for our region.
We’re certainly not perfect – this past week also highlighted that 56 percent of all third graders in Massachusetts are not able to read adequately to enter 4th grade ready to learn. But Massachusetts is at the forward edge of knowledge and discovery in many areas, with a new generation of leaders who have talent and courage and a newfound commitment to inclusion and collaboration. This combination is unusual if not unique, and it creates a synergy where the sum can be greater than the total of its parts – a kind of alchemy and momentum that feeds on itself and can lead to progress in many directions, like climate change and closing the racial wealth gap.
We have a long way to go and many challenges as a Commonwealth. But we are onto something big here, and perhaps we’re at a tipping point. These recent successes, together with lots of other successful innovations and collaborations, suggest that we are truly becoming a frontier state, helping to create the future, today.
Ira Jackson teaches at Harvard where he also a research fellow at the Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government, focusing on how Massachusetts can emerge as the frontier state, at the edge of not only knowledge creation and economic prosperity, but also climate change and social and racial progress.