Bloomberg U.’s Bad Timing

Photo: Illustration by Martin Ansin

We won’t find out until the New Year who gets to build New York’s future applied-sciences campus, but Mayor Bloomberg wants us to know he’s feeling good about the contenders: “All of the submissions were stronger than anything we could have possibly imagined,” he declared as the seven qualifying bids were revealed last month. It was a fitting note of triumphalism in a project marked from its inception by towering chutzpah. The mayor had wagered that if he offered some free city land and $100 million worth of basic infrastructure, elite universities would line up to compete for the privilege of spending the additional billions required to turn his vision into a reality. And he bet right, with Stanford, Cornell, Columbia, NYU, and Carnegie Mellon all joining the derby.

But getting a new campus built will almost surely be the easy part. Bloomberg’s real gambit, of course, is to lessen the city’s economic dependence on Wall Street by galvanizing the creation of a new Silicon Valley. Unfortunately, he may have picked an inauspicious time to pursue that always elusive goal.

Cities across the globe have been trying to create “the next Silicon Valley” since the seventies. Perhaps you have heard of Scotland’s “Silicon Glen,” Ireland’s “Silicon Bog,” and Egypt’s “Silicon Pyramids”—though, tellingly, you probably haven’t. Even now, New York is one of several cities worldwide trying to re-create the magic of Northern California. Moscow is embarking on $6.6 billion of construction to build its own “Silikonnovaya Dolina.” And two years ago, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology opened outside Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, boasting one of the world’s largest university endowments. It has an iconic campus outfitted with all the sustainable bells and energy-efficient whistles, a research agenda tailored to contemporary technological challenges, a wannabe Silicon Valley vibe, and it caters solely to graduate students: In short, it looks a lot like what Stanford and Cornell have proposed to build on Roosevelt Island.

Reams have been published about the unique institutional, economic, and sociological conditions that sustained California’s tech miracle, analyzing practically everything but the local quality of light and shadow. But one of the more straightforward factors that gave rise to Silicon Valley was a Cold War boom in federal research funding. And right now, the congressional supercommittee is determining, among other things, how big our own era’s bust in research funding will be. According to the American Physical Society, funding for science agencies could fall by as much as 11 percent. No less than Harvard, in its financial report for 2011, has warned of a likely “material adverse effect” on the university should government resources drop too much. “I’m a little bit afraid,” says Henry J. Eyring, co-author of the new book The Innovative University, “that building facilities for performing academic research right now may be a little bit like upsizing your home with a larger mortgage—in about 2007.”

The city’s response is that the new campus is a long-term investment, one that could generate 7,000 badly needed construction jobs in the short term and will take shape as a research enterprise over the next decade or two. “Science and technology are the future, and we hope the federal government will continue to recognize this,” says Seth Pinsky, the president of the New York City Economic Development Corporation. “But especially if they’re cutting back, we have to keep investing.” Still, while it’s hard to imagine New York envying Saudi Arabia in anything like academic prowess, a research enterprise funded by steady oil revenues does have its advantages. In some races, chutzpah is not enough.

This article has been updated since its original publication.

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Bloomberg U.’s Bad Timing