A Year in New England: Boston vs. The Valley

It has now been over a year since my move to Boston from Palo Alto, which seems like a fitting time to take a retrospective look at the two places. My sampling will be far from unbiased, having lived close to 20 years in the Bay Area. As a result this will be more like “Boston through the eyes of a Northern Californian”. There is no specific order to the comparisons below; I will vacillate between the substantive and the frivolous. And there will be no declared winner; both places are far too different and offer far too much for one to dominate the other in the Pareto optimal sense. At times, this will be more about Stanford vs. Harvard than the Bay Area vs. Boston, as much of my experience is ultimately grounded by my local environment.

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The Federal Government is Not Useless

There has been much haranguing about the apparent uselessness of the federal government. While I am no political pundit, I can speak about my little corner of the universe. The US federal government includes something called the National Institutes of Health or NIH, which happens to be the largest scientific research organization in the world. With a budget of over $30 billion, it spends more on research than Microsoft, IBM, Intel, Google, and Apple combined, supporting over 300,000 researchers nationwide. It also employs 6,000 scientists internally, who collectively produce more biomedical research than any other organization in the United States. What does it mean for the NIH staff to be furloughed? It means that every single day, 16.4 research years are wasted, or about three Ph.D. theses. This is likely to be an underestimate because the scientists employed by the NIH are professionals whose scientific output exceeds that of graduate students, and the quality of NIH-produced research backs this up. What kind of research will be delayed every day? You can read the list yourself, but it includes things like deciphering the genetic code, inventing MRI, and sequencing the human genome. This is not hyperbole; all these discoveries were made by NIH-supported researchers, who have received 83 Nobel prizes in total.

The US is the world’s preeminent scientific superpower, “a player without peer” as Nature recently put it. Only through profound and self-inflicted displays of stupidity such as we have witnessed during the past 24 hours will this cease to be the case.