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New technology is key to economic success, Vest says

President Charles Vest was the keynote speaker at a February 7 breakfast at which the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce made public its 2001 Leading Industries Report.

The study, presented in downtown Boston to local business people and organization representatives, analyzes the competitive position of the five industries that drive greater Boston's economy and provide more than half of all employment in the region.

The report found that from 1997 to 2000, the leading industries -- financial services, health care, high technology, education and consulting, and the visitor industry -- saw their combined employment grow dramatically, creating more than 60,000 (an additional 8.4 percent) new jobs in Greater Boston.

Combined, the five leading industries directly employ 769,000 people and, indirectly, an additional 220,000. According to the report:

  • Financial services grew by 7.9 percent, creating more than 10,000 new jobs, 8,000 in the securities sector.
  • Health care, which lost nearly 4,000 jobs, is the only leading industry in which employment declined, bringing the industry to its lowest level of employment since 1995. A 40 percent decline in the home health care sector was the largest contributor to the aggregate industry decline of 2 percent.
  • High-technology employment increased by more than 37,000 new jobs, an increase of 20.5 percent, accounting for nearly half of all leading industries' growth and surpassing the level the industry achieved during its late-1980s peak.
  • Education and consulting has grown steadily for at least the last decade, creating 8,800 new jobs between 1997 and 2000, an increase of more than 7 percent. Consulting firms created nearly 7,000 of these jobs.
  • The visitor industry created more than 7,000 new jobs, an increase of more than 9.2 percent. More than 2,700 of the new employees were in the hotel industry, an increase of nearly 15 percent.

According to the report, the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce will try to ensure that the leading industries have the resources, infrastructure and opportunities to extend their global competitiveness and keep the region's economy strong and growing.

Among other things, the chamber will work to secure increases in federal research funding, expand international trade opportunities, develop convention center and hotel resources, control health care costs and increase the supply of affordable housing.


President Vest spoke about new technologies that might continue to fuel the region's and the nation's future prosperity.

"If you ask me what we should do to keep our businesses and industries humming, I would say, 'invest in innovation,'" he said. "By innovation, I mean generating new ideas and new technologies, and bringing them into the marketplace in a cost-effective and efficient manner."

Despite warning signs -- such as a drop in federal spending on R&D, the state of K-12 education and the failure to attract more minorities and women into science, math and engineering careers -- society is increasingly dependent on strength and innovation in science and technology, President Vest said.

New areas of research that will help drive the economy and improve the quality of life include human-centered computing, biotechnology, neuroscience, nanotechnology and microphotonics.

Biotechnology is expected to translate knowledge into dramatic advances in medicine, energy, advanced materials, agriculture and more.

Some of biotech's potential applications are gene therapy, new vaccines and diagnostic tests. Biotechnology has led to advances in the treatment of heart attacks, cystic fibrosis, cancer, diabetes, hepatitis and anemia, to name just a few, President Vest said.

Researchers in neuroscience expect to see enormous advances in understanding the brain and mind over the next few decades, potentially offering new therapies and cures for illnesses such as Alzheimer's, schizophrenia and manic-depression, he said.

Nanotechnology and microphotonics will change the face of future technology, he said. "Using the tools of nanotechnology, we can already create unique materials and structures. In coming decades, we will begin to build microscopic nanomachines. This technology will shape the future development of an enormous range and variety of fields," President Vest said.

Microphotonics, which creates optical devices and circuits on the same size scale as computer chips, has enormous implications for telecommunications, data communications and computing.

President Vest emphasized that in addition to these initiatives, more attention must be paid to research and development of alternate and renewable energy resources.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 14, 2001.

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