Globe Editorial

Harvard wisely keeps its faith in science center in Allston

March 24, 2011

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HARVARD’S PROPOSAL for biotechnology labs in Allston, connecting the scientific resources of America’s premier university to the economy of Boston, was a visionary achievement of former President Lawrence Summers. The labs would put Harvard on the cutting edge of discovery in biotechnology, and cement Boston’s status as a global biotech center. It was a perfect illustration of how Harvard elevates Massachusetts in more than just reputation: Thousands, if not tens of thousands, of jobs could result.

In the wake of the economic downturn, and Harvard’s plunge in endowment, Summers’ successor, Drew Faust, put on the brakes. For two years she was tentative about making firm commitments to Allston. That’s why it’s manifestly good news for Massachusetts that, after assessing many options, she has reasserted Harvard’s commitment to a biotech center there.

In addition, Faust announced that the Boston Redevelopment Authority had approved plans to build an Innovation Lab tied to the Harvard Business School in Allston, connecting students, faculty, and entrepreneurs from the surrounding community. Together, the biotech center and the Innovation Lab should assure that Allston will not become Harvard’s backyard, stuffed with administrative offices and sports facilities, but rather its front yard — the place where it connects most dynamically with the city and business world. This bodes well for a neighborhood that suffered first from Harvard’s secret efforts to buy up land, and then from the university’s inability to make meaningful improvements on the land.

Neighbors aren’t yet recovered from those bruises, and disagreements remain on the size, contours, and commercial footprint of Harvard’s development. The ongoing real estate trough, and slow economic growth, will surely contribute to further delays. Frustration won’t end soon.

But Faust’s commitments, spelled out in a letter to the community last week, are an important step forward. If Harvard had proposed using the biotech site on Western Avenue for a non-science purpose, with fewer benefits for the local economy, a great opportunity would have been missed.

As the private-equity financier Steve Pagliuca has argued in these pages, major industries tend to cluster in certain places, and biotech represents Boston’s best opportunity to be a global hub. Smartly targeted public investment, such as that in North Carolina’s Research Triangle, can yield enormous dividends. As Harvard continues to look for ways to finance the biotech center, the state and private investors should examine the potential of a joint public-private-university initiative. Generations of Bostonians could reap the rewards.