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Innovation: The Rallying Cry of the 21st Century

In Mexico City, London, and Upstate New York, the Academy is helping to build alliances aimed at making the regions more competitive in a knowledge economy.

In late February, Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard's newly appointed Commissioner for Strategic Planning, Jorge de los Santos, signed a $750,000 alliance with the New York Academy of Sciences to co-develop his Capital City's first-ever Science & Innovation Week.

A few months earlier, the New York State Commission on Higher Education recommended a $3 billion initiative to dramatically improve the state's higher education system in order to improve New York's competitiveness. On the very first page of recommendations, the commission called for the New York Academy of Sciences to establish "Global Clusters of Excellence" to develop synergies among the cutting-edge researchers in academia and industry in Western and Central New York and the Albany area.

Just last December, the first-ever partnership between the three great universities of London—Imperial College, King's College, and University College London—produced a dynamic conference on the Frontiers of Brain Imaging and a launch pad for the Global Medical Excellence Cluster (GMEC), Southeast England's unprecedented effort to harness and synergize the scientific strengths of the "London Three" plus Cambridge and Oxford.

Triggered by a meeting at 10 Downing Street during the waning days of Tony Blair's regime, the GMEC was the answer the five universities' presidents gave to Blair's challenge that reportedly went something like: "How are we going to compete with Boston, the San Francisco Bay Area and, I hear, lately New York, if our own institutions continue to compete with each other so fiercely that we are unable to maximize our strengths?" Because London lacked a neutral body to help the institutions work together, the New York Academy of Sciences was invited to lead the partnership that produced the brain imaging meeting and now has been asked to co-organize future events designed to bring the "Big Five" together.

The underlying common elements in those three stories are, most obviously, the New York Academy of Sciences and—less obviously—a viral recognition by leaders the world over that the 21st century will be characterized in no small part by a grand competition among regional centers to become pre-eminent innovation drivers.

NYAS Chairman John Sexton calls this a battle to be the world's most effective "Idea Capital." Others call it the fight for leadership in the "Knowledge Economy." Whatever the wording, the underlying concept seems the same: that in a post-industrial age the keys to economic sustainability for urban centers will be education, science, technology, finance, and a system that stimulates entrepreneurship. Urban centers whose researchers and university administrations remain "siloed"—disconnected from one another, from industry, and from venture capital—will fall behind. The achievement of excellence solely through the global collaborations of individual investigators will no longer guarantee the excellence of an institution, much less the region in which it resides.

Enter the New York Academy of Sciences, which is one of the rare institutions that can build bridges between disciplines, institutions, and economic sectors such as academia, industry, science, and finance.

In New York City, our success at developing collaborative infrastructure has been noticed the world over. Consider our 18-member Science Alliance for Graduate Students and Postdocs; our 29 program committees in leading-edge, crossdisciplinary fields that informally link the best and brightest from our many greater-metro-area institutions with industry; and our (formal and informal) partnerships with the local government to stimulate city strengths in white-hot competitive fields like green buildings, new energy, and quantitative finance.

In addition to our formal alliance with Mexico City and our informal alliances with multiple institutions in Upstate New York, the San Francisco Bay Area, London, Barcelona, Stockholm, and China, we have been invited to enter into discussions with North Carolina, North Rhine-Westphalia, the Persian Gulf States, and India.

Our goal is to help every region that partners with us to become more competitive through better uses of indigenous resources—through internal collaborations—and then to link these dynamic entities to one another to spur global competitiveness. At the heart of all this will be great science and engineering and great scientists and engineers. The New York Academy of Sciences stands for great science, and our mission is to advance it. Could this new element in the Academy portfolio be more exciting as we close in on our Bicentennial, now but nine years ahead of us?

Ellis Rubinstein