Why Greater Boston deserves to be called the ‘brainpower triangle’

12 Sep 2018

Aerial view of Harvard University campus along Charles River. Image: Joseph Sohm/Shutterstock

Silicon Valley might consider itself the centre of the US tech world, but many of its brightest minds were shaped in the Greater Boston area.

Countless cities across the world are internationally renowned for their culinary knowhow or architectural beauty, yet the Greater Boston area’s greatest claim to fame lies within the minds of many of its residents.

While Silicon Valley has been innovating much of the world for the past few decades – largely thanks to many immigrants both from the US and globally – Boston’s illustrious links with education date back to colonial times.

For example, the oldest public high school in the US, the Boston Latin School, was established all the way back in 1635 and would subsequently develop many of the Boston ‘Brahmin’ elite of the region’s upper classes.

However, it is in higher education where the Boston area truly excels today, with about 50 different institutions dotted in the region serving more than half a million students in a given year.

In fact, the three largest universities – Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Tufts – are nearly household names due to their production of some of the world’s brightest minds, rightfully earning the area in between them the nickname of the ‘brainpower triangle’.

A map showing the brainpower triangle of the three largest universities.

Map of the ‘brainpower triangle’. Image: AxidentalGenius/Wikimedia Commons

Impressive numbers

Unsurprisingly, both MIT and Harvard are included in many lists of the best universities in the country, such as one released last year by Times Higher Education.

Harvard, which also happens to be the oldest university in the entire US, was founded in 1636. Having become synonymous with the educated elite, Harvard College has just under 7,000 students in an academic year with a total of 22,000 overall when taking graduate and professional students into account.

Its list of honours is truly staggering, with 48 Nobel Laureates having served there, along with 32 heads of state and another 48 Pulitzer Prize winners. Throw on top of that the Harvard Library, the largest academic library in the world with 400m manuscript items, and you have an institution to be envious of.

Then there is MIT, which is typically known for its focus on the fields of biology, machine learning and engineering. It has almost double the Nobel Laureates as Harvard.

Also located in Cambridge, the university’s research is regularly featured on Siliconrepublic.com and boasts a relatively high number of graduate students among women (35pc) and minorities (18pc) out of a total of almost 7,000.

Just to get a sense of what has come out of MIT, The Boston Globe marked the institute’s 150th anniversary in 2011 with a list of just 150 inventions that came out of it during its history.

You may have heard of the top five to make that list: Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the world wide web; Eric Lander, team leader of the Human Genome project; William Shockley, inventor of the solid-state transistor; Ray Tomlinson, inventor of the ‘@’ symbol; and Phillip Sharp, founder of Biogen.

With such illustrious alumni, it isn’t surprising that defence contractors and major engineering giants maintain close relationships with MIT. A recent example is Boeing, which has agreed a deal to lease an almost 10,000 sq m space at the campus in Kendall Square.

When combined, almost 2,000 entrepreneurial alumni of MIT and Harvard have generated close to $50bn in venture capital, rivalling the west coast’s Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley.

The final entry into the brainpower triangle, Tufts University, can’t claim to be as old as the other two, having been founded in 1852. However, it still has three major campuses across the state of Massachusetts in Medford and Somerville, Boston, and Grafton, with another satellite campus in Talloires in the south-east of France.

Experiencing a transformation in the 1970s, the university is multidisciplinary, but is particularly well known for its School of Medicine as well as its Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. With an average of around 11,500 students enrolled in a given year, it has also excelled in other areas such as career studies and advanced engineering.

Red Boston University sign with students walking in the background.

Image: Jorge Salcedo/Shutterstock

Going public

Outside of the brainpower triangle, however, more than a dozen other major universities can be found in the Greater Boston area. The biggest by some distance is Boston University, with close to 33,000 students and a staff list that makes it one of the region’s largest employers.

The university is spread across two campuses, including its primary Charles River campus and its other medical campus, the latter of which helped secure Boston University more than $400m in government research funding.

It is worth bearing in mind that all of the aforementioned universities are privately funded. The largest, and only, public university in the Boston area is the University of Massachusetts Boston (UMass). With its main campus in the Quincy area of Boston, the university’s areas of research importance are in the life sciences, data science, climate science and advanced manufacturing.

Despite being near some of the biggest prestigious universities in the world, UMass claims to be the largest producer of highly skilled workers in the Commonwealth area, with more than 18,000 graduates produced each year.

With this just being a flavour of what’s in the Greater Boston area, you’d have to wonder whether the brainpower triangle nickname deserves to be expanded into a giant brainpower circle.

Aerial view of Harvard University campus along Charles River. Image: Joseph Sohm/Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic