Agglomeration Vs. Isolation for Science Based Economic Development


Earlier this month President Obama signed the reauthorization of the COMPETES Act, which provides federal funding for science initiatives aimed at enhancing economic competitiveness. In addition to shoring up agencies like the National Science Foundation, the bill called on the Department of Commerce to create a new program charged with supporting the development of research parks and regional innovation clusters. Unheard of before World War II, these entities today represent the cutting edge in what insiders call TBED: technology-based economic development. By leveraging existing strengths and promoting cooperation between universities and private industry, TBED-minded regions seek to attract outside investment and carve out a niche in the global economy.

Research parks and innovation clusters both draw on the logic of agglomeration: when smart people (or up-and-coming firms) gather in a concentrated area, the story goes, they bounce ideas off each other and push each other to innovate and eventually outperform other people or firms who are more widely dispersed. This is the logic at the heart of Geoffrey West’s grand unified theory of urbanism featured in the New York Times back in December. It’s the logic of Silicon Valley. But is agglomeration always good for science? What assumptions do clusters and science parks make about how research gets carried out? That is, does science cluster of its own accord? Or can the political and economic arguments for clustering come into conflict with strains of science that are best kept at arm’s length?

An instructive case to consider is that of the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF), an animal disease research facility set to be built in Manhattan, Kansas. After the anthrax attacks of 2001, bioterrorism experts convinced the Bush administration that biological agents and, specifically, diseases affecting American livestock could constitute a threat to the nation’s security. American agriculture was, in the words of one presidential directive, “an extensive, open, interconnected, diverse and complex structure providing potential targets for terrorist attacks.” So the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) dreamed up a new, state-of-the-art laboratory for animal disease research, and after a long, involved site selection process, Kansas was selected to host the new lab in December 2008. As the Daily Yonder recently reported, concerns persist about whether it’s a good idea to conduct research on deadly livestock diseases smack in the middle of cattle country.

Then what brought NBAF to Kansas, if DHS acknowledged that a mainland location was riskier than a lab located offshore? The answer, as far as I can tell, is agglomeration. NBAF’s predecessor, the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, was located in the middle of Long Island Sound to minimize the risk of an accidental pathogen release. Scientists took a ferryboat to work in the morning, and in the early years nothing could leave the island, not even library books. NBAF, on the other hand, was always envisioned as part of a constantly circulating network. DHS’s request for proposals explicitly mentioned “proximity to other related scientific programs and research infrastructure” as one of the selection criteria. Others included proximity to vaccine manufacturers and access to an international airport. If the geographical logic of animal disease research after World War II was one of isolation, then the new logic of post-9/11 science was one of hyperconnection.

The sites that were well connected—literally—were the ones that moved forward in the NBAF site selection process. Georgia and North Carolina offered access to nearby veterinary schools, while Mississippi vowed to work with contract research giant Battelle to drum up the necessary workforce. Backers in San Antonio proposed locating the lab in, you guessed it, the Texas Research Park. But it was the Kansas bid that best exemplified the new logic of agglomeration, by envisioning NBAF as the anchor for an emerging Kansas City Animal Health Corridor. Kansas State University, where the lab would be located, offered DHS “surge capacity” in its new Biosecurity Research Institute if a crisis were to ensue. And as for the half-million cattle in nearby counties? Those, too, became part of the cluster, with the Kansas Livestock Association issuing a letter of support arguing that “having this facility in close proximity to the nation’s geographic concentration of meat production is extremely logical.” The proximity that a previous generation of researchers understood as a vector of contagion was now being repackaged as a source of reassurance and a boon to scientific discovery.

You can’t fault Kansas, of course, for wanting to secure its slice of the knowledge economy. In a report for the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Mark Drabenstott argues that Midwestern states need to be looking beyond silos and smokestacks, and the Kansas Bioscience Authority estimates that NBAF will have a positive economic impact of $3.5 billion over the next two decades. That’s pretty good. Except, according to a 2009 report from the Government Accountability Office, the cost of a large-scale outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease would be even greater. There are no easy answers here. The point is that science-driven development carries risks, and concentrating brainpower in one place can also mean concentrating the harmful substances that those knowledge workers handle each day. Without being hobbled by irresponsible fearmongering, states and regions pursuing an innovation agenda need to be honest about the associated risks—and to ensure that the people who bear those risks also stand to reap the rewards.

After all, confining science to uninhabited islands means asking scientists to live like monastics, and risks isolating them in an echo chamber of their own assumptions. That’s neither desirable nor practical. So, if the science cluster is here to stay, then the question becomes how to build a research infrastructure that maximizes the benefits of clustering and minimizes the drawbacks.
Brazil’s Ministry of Science and Technology just put forward a promising template, which calls for decentralizing scientific research from the southern cities of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro to other parts of the country. Too much concentration in the south, the ministry concluded, could actually quash innovation and exacerbate existing inequalities. But a growing research economy in the north could ease the strain on the region’s natural resources and help incoming president Dilma Rousseff to make good on her pledge to combat poverty in the South American nation.

Let’s be clear: there’s no neatly replicable way of manufacturing scientific breakthroughs, and people around the world will continue to have good ideas without ever setting foot in an innovation cluster. Still, modern science thrives on linkages, and managing those linkages has become an increasingly central part of modern statecraft. As policymakers use the new tools at their disposal to promote cooperation between universities, companies, and local economies, they would do well to think of agglomeration, not as an inherent good, but as a means of securing real, sustainable prosperity.

Marcel LaFlamme is a graduate student in the Department of Anthropology at Rice University. His research focuses on science-driven development on the American Great Plains.

Photo: NBAF draft rendering,

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