If there’s one thing the inimitable Harvard University would not seem to need, it’s a high-stakes jump into realms where others already dominate.
But having patiently stockpiled far more land in Boston than it owns back in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and having watched ambitious research-driven expansions by universities near and far, Harvard is taking the leap.
On some 28 hectares (70 acres) of industrial wasteland just south of its 17th-century campus, Harvard is setting out to build an interwoven cluster of world-leading academic and corporate science units in such fields as engineering, computing, medicine and business.
It will be “really the next great innovation centre in America”, said Paul Karoff, assistant dean for communications and strategic priorities in Harvard’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, which will be the new project’s major tenant.
The dream – if not the dreamer – is fairly commonplace. Communities have long hoped to ignite profitable synergies by putting knowledge-hungry industries next to research university campuses. An iconic example, North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park, is almost 60 years old. The US now has about 170 of them nationwide.
As might be expected of the nation’s wealthiest university, Harvard’s version will not come cheap. Along with the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on land acquisitions over the past couple of decades, the centrepiece of the project in Boston’s Allston neighbourhood is a $1 billion (£774 million) science complex set to open in 2020.
Yet despite such stratospheric figures, the risk-to-reward ratio may be fairly low. First, Harvard has the money. It has an endowment of some $40 billion. And to help even more, Harvard received $400 million for the new engineering and sciences centre from John Paulson, a hedge fund billionaire and alumnus of Harvard’s business school.
Second, the demand seems insatiable. Kendall Square, a 12-hectare (30-acre) office zone next to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and just over a mile from Harvard, is so crammed with life science and technology companies that rents have ballooned to two or three times the rates of downtown Boston.
Kendall is so full, Mr Karoff said, “they’re tearing down buildings and putting up taller ones – it is completely saturated”. Harvard and the city of Boston have set aside twice as much space for corporate research activity in the Allston endeavour as Kendall now offers.
Third, students badly want it. Harvard accepts about 2,000 undergraduates a year, and in the past 11 years, the proportion choosing applied mathematics, computer science or engineering has risen from 6 per cent to 20 per cent of the university-wide total. “We’re busting at the seams” in Cambridge, Mr Karoff said. “We’ve converted every broom closet available into a lab or a classroom or an office.”
The shift in student preferences towards science and engineering is creating a far greater net need for space than would be created by growth in other fields. More science and engineering students means more academics and classes, which in turn means more graduate students to help teach those undergraduates, which in turn means more lab space to house the graduate students.
Harvard’s current presence in Allston, just across the Charles River from Cambridge, consists primarily of its business school and various sports fields, including historic Harvard Stadium. The new home for the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences will add almost a half-million square feet (46,400 square metres) of classrooms, laboratories and other facilities.
And yet that is still not enough space for the entire school. The programmes that will move to Allston include computer science and engineering, mechanical engineering, material science, robotics and most of electrical engineering. Those remaining in Cambridge will include environmental science and applied physics, which are staying put because of the size and specialisation of their existing facilities and equipment and because of a desire to remain close to colleagues in related disciplines.
Many other details beyond 2020 are tougher to predict. Mr Karoff said that several specialisations where Harvard is already formidable could achieve even greater prominence in the Allston environment. They include robotics, artificial intelligence and biotechnology.
“We’re not looking to be MIT or Stanford, which are programmes that are vastly larger in scale and scope,” he said. “But we are certainly looking to be on a peer level in terms of quality, and I think in many respects already are.”
The relatively smaller size of Harvard’s science and engineering programmes could even prove an advantage, Mr Karoff said. They can be more flexible, giving them scope to adapt and grow, and they are not burdened by “legacy” courses such as nuclear engineering and petroleum engineering that other universities still operate. And the proximity of the business school to the science and engineering school, he said, could greatly boost students seeking to start new tech companies.
Beyond that, Harvard anticipates that its Allston expansion will serve as a complement, rather than a challenge, to MIT and Kendall, as well as to other science-driven expansions at and around Northeastern, Tufts and Boston universities.
“It’s one ecosystem,” Mr Karoff said. “And it’s an ecosystem that is going to continue to grow.”