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Elizabeth Cooney is a health reporter for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.
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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Science City Summit asks how to keep scientists here

If Boston and Cambridge have one of the densest clusters of biotech companies and academic labs in the country, a television studio at WGBH tonight was even more concentrated with about a hundred scientists, life science entrepreneurs and the people who want to keep them here.

The occasion was a live show hosted by Emily Rooney of Channel 2's "Greater Boston" and Lisa Mullins of the WGBH radio program "The World" for the Science City Summit, part of the 10-day Cambridge Science Festival.

They and their panelists asked why Boston and Cambridge have been such fertile ground for discoveries and businesses, and how the cities can keep their edge in innovation while the labor force is dwindling and housing prices are climbing out of reach.

The first answer was easy: Harvard, MIT and Boston's teaching hospitals got the credit for providing the brainpower, and the 1980 Bayh-Dole Act, which allowed institutions funded by the federal government to profit from their discoveries, was praised for unleashing biotech businesses.

But how to keep that edge and the people who provide it was a harder question to answer.

Before the show, Daniel Bessette, a molecular biologist at the Broad Institute, and Alison Bowden, an aquatic ecologist at the Nature Conservancy, explained why they enjoy working here.

"There's something attractive about being in an environment with people who share your interests," Bowden said. "It's appealing to be part of it."

Construction never seems to end in Cambridge, with new buildings occupied by more scientists and engineers, Bessette said, recalling how quickly the Broad's new space filled up.

During the show, audience members and viewers e-mailing their questions repeatedly asked about creating jobs for people who don't have PhDs in science. Those openings come later, with manufacturing plants, not labs, said Oliver Peoples of biotech company Metabolix.

Alan West, a retired chemistry professor from Wisconsin who tutors students in Cambridge, said he thinks the city will lose its scientists if they don't believe their children will get a good education in public schools.

"It's not that they don't know science," he said. "It's that they don't know how to read and write."

At the end, after Rooney described how the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca decided to expand in Waltham rather than other parts of the country where costs might be lower, Bowden of the Nature Conservancy said she didn't expect the emphasis to be on biotech in the evening's program.

"I was surprised by how much science is viewed as an economic issue, and not as an intellectual or cultural issue," she said.

Posted by Elizabeth Cooney at 09:15 PM
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