New York's Next Frontier

Editor's note:

This article was published in The New York Sun.

Lee C. Bollinger
October 03, 2007

There was a time in the middle of the 20th century when Morningside Heights was not only a spawning ground for the generation of Beat writers; it was also the world center for theoretical physics, with Nobel Prizes as much a fall rite as Yankee pennants.

For his wartime service in developing radar, Professor I.I. Rabi alone attracted a flood of research grants to Columbia -- along with a steady stream of brilliant graduate students coming to upper Manhattan, eager to learn from and live among the best minds.

This could describe New York City itself. A leader in so many fields, New York enjoys almost ceaseless momentum, fueled at least in part by the endless talent drawn to our great universities. Immersed in the city's culture of excellence, they continue to redefine the frontiers of knowledge.

The question we now face is whether New York will remain a global capital not only of business and finance, but also of intellectual, technical, and scientific discovery. Experience shows that kins of leadership -- and the economic growth that flows from it -- is by no means assured.

Columbia plans to meet this challenge by assembling one of the greatest and most diverse concentrations of brain power anywhere in the world. A key part of the university's proposed expansion in the Manhattanville area of West Harlem will provide the opportunity to add approximately 500 new researchers, who will collaborate across traditional academic boundaries to address the signal challenges of our time.

While it is impossible to predict the course of new knowledge -- and teh specific research priorities our faculty will generate -- there is much we can envision about how a thriving, eclectic community of scholars in this city can cross frontiers of scientific inquiry that affect our world.

During the first phase of construction, we will cluster our schools of business and the arts, together with teams of Nobel Prize-winning scientists leading our new Mind, Brain, and Behavior Initiative at the Jerome L. Greene Science Center. Not only will their research have profound implications for the treatment of mood disorders and brain illness, it also will help us understand the mental processes that permit us to paint a masterpiece, patent and invention, or lead a business.

"For the first time in history, it is now possible to imagine an integrated global society. Yet it will elude us if we do not focus far more resources, talent, and energy on figuring out how to sustain the health of our planet and those inhabiting it."

The second phase will create spaces for tackling such interdisciplinary challenges as:

  • Systems biology: Through the cross-cutting research of chemists, biologists, geneticists, and computer scientists, we believe we can uncover the ancient mysteries of life and death while also enabling doctors to study a patient's unique genetic code to prevent disease.
  • Urban Life: By the year 2025, two-thirds of humanity will live in cities. To respond to this great migration, we will launch a new program in population studies that will open up the field of genetics and pharmacogenomics -- all in an effort to capture the history and fundamental mechanisms by which civilizations on earth evolve.
  • Sustainability: Scientists at our Earth Institute and others will research climate change and identify new ways to reverse its tide. Their work could generate alternative energy sources, reduce carbon levels in rivers and oceans, perfect bio fuel cells, and determine how living beings can be more responsible stewards of our planet.
  • New technologies: Because all of this will depend on basic and applied technology research, we are designing highly interactive spaces that will lead to the innovation of new tools for health care, agriculture, engineering, and manufacturing.

For the first time in history, it is now possible to imagine an integrated global society. Yet it will elude us if we do not focus far more resources, talent, and energy on figuring out how to sustain the health of our planet and those inhabiting it.

In Upper Manhattan our scientists will not only study this future, they will invent it if we can offer them the state-of-the-art facilities they need to excel. The problems of the world demanding our attention call for a new combination of academic and technological expertise, and with it, new ways of organizing space for teaching and research. The result will be a buzzing community of diverse perspectives and expertise that reflects the historic dynamism of this City at its best.

It will also serve New York City as an engine of economic growth, where more companies will want to be the first to translate research breakthroughs into revolutionary cures and technologies. In a global economy that continues to draw many middle-income jobs to lower-wage regions, these are the higher value-added jobs of the future, whether in the thousands of support and administration roles at universities or the thousands more private sector jobs created by entrepreneurs. 

New York City and State are already shaping public policies based on this intellectual multiplier formula. Mayor Bloomberg's Economic Development Corporation has clustered the East River Science Park around Bellevue Hospital and New York University Medical School, joining the Audubon Business and Technology Center in Washington Heights.

Governor Spitzer has fought for an 11-year, $600 million stem cell and biomedical research funding initiative to find cures and create needed jobs. Our proposed expansion can provide a significant boost to this "Innovation Economy," and we are committed to partnering with our city and state leaders to achieve it.

We may have water on all sides, but New York's frontier has always been unlimited precisely because we are a place where poets and painters, climatologists and neurobiologists live together. Imagine what we can do for our city and our world if we give them the space and the tools to work together.