10/26/2010 02:28 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

How Cities Get Science -- or Don't

This article originally appeared at Motherboard.

Of course, science tells us, we’re all products of our environment. Just like our ability to be creative, our scientific prowess depends upon how easy it is for us to share ideas. And there’s no better place for that than the city.

To wit, the latest issue of Nature has a big package on the intersection of cities and science, made up of lots of great graphics and a number of feature articles, like one on how to design urban areas for scientific innovation.

One study showcased there looks at which cities have the highest rate of scientific publication. Topping the list are Tokyo, London, Beijing, followed by the San Francisco Bay Area, Paris and New York.

Beijing? Really?
If that sounds like a suspicious ranking – yes, even if the world’s most prolific inventor, Dr. Nakamats, lives in Tokyo – remember quantity doesn’t translate to quality. Elsevier looked at the average number of citations that a research paper from a city attracts, and found, unsurprisingly, that Boston and Cambridge, Massachusetts, come out on top, attracting more than twice as many citations per paper as the global average.

Other US cities dominate the quality table, with only one European city, Cambridge, UK, breaking into the top 10. The highest rate of improvement can be seen in Singapore and Austin, Texas; Beijing, meanwhile, clocks in low, with papers in the five-year period ending 2008 attracting 63% of the global average-citation rate.

Secret Sauce: Keep that Coffee Hot
But what makes the hot science cities tick like a lab timer? Mary Walshok, a sociologist at the University of California, San Diego, says scientists need the freedom to work on their own ideas, the tools and infrastructure to do so, ample public funding as well as local private corporations and philanthropists (see Austin or Seattle), and an attractive lifestyle.

Sociologist Richard Florida, “creative city” thinker extraordinaire, says scientists are among the “creative class,” who demand amenities and smart urban planning. One statistician, Kevin Stolarick, says that universities and hospitals should be close enough for a cup of coffee to stay hot when travelling between them. Then again, cities generally thought to be the most ‘liveable’ in surveys, like Vancouver, are often not associated with outstanding creativity, according to Peter Hall, a geographer at University College London.

And then there’s the money and commercialization issue: a city isn’t going to become a petri dish for scientific invention if it’s not paying the bills.

Even with the right ingredients -- freedom, funding, lifestyle and healthy environments -- to attract and keep scientists, there is no guarantee that their work will generate economic wealth. [José Lobo, a statistician and economist who works on regions and innovation at Arizona State University in Tempe] points out that New Mexico probably has the highest number of physicists per capita in the United States, thanks to the Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories, but it is hardly an economic powerhouse, as the research doesn’t lend itself to commercialization. Boston, on the other hand, has a strong foundation of basic science that has attracted companies and institutes, which in turn has created wealth and attracted more top scientists.

Boston’s economic resilience, born of a diverse labour force, is key to this virtuous cycle. Science is merely the latest in a series of economic rebirths -- from being the largest city in early colonial America, to a centre for global shipping and sailing in the nineteenth century, to its current position as a biotech hub. Similar tales of success are told for the San Francisco area, with its attractive climate, culture of adventurous investment and laws that favour creative workers. It is illegal in California, for example, to enforce a waiting period before employees move to a competitor’s firm, allowing people and ideas to move about freely.

Some of it is behind a paywall, but there’s a lot that’s available for “free” – one of those keywords for a healthy scientific culture in a city.