Where the Super-Brains Are

Last Friday, my list of America's Brainiest Cities ran over at The Daily Beast. Boulder topped the list, which comprised a mix of larger knowledge-intensive metros like Washington, D.C., Boston, Silicon Valley, San Francisco, Austin, and Seattle, and college towns like Ithaca, Charlottesville, Madison, Iowa City, and Durham, North Carolina, among others.

The map above, prepared by Zara Matheson of the Martin Prosperity Institute, shows the performance of all U.S. metros on our Brainiest Metros Index developed with my colleague Charlotta Mellander. The index is based on three variables:

  • The share of adults 25 years of age and older with a PhD, master's, or professional degree (from the U.S. Census American Community Survey).
  • Computer scientists and mathematicians as a share of all employment.
  • Scientists (physical, biological, social) as a share of total metro employment (both from Bureau of Labor Statistics).

The Index weights all three variables equally and covers 339 U.S. metro regions.

Now let's look quickly at how U.S. metros perform on these three key factors that make up the overall index.

The first chart above maps U.S. metros on the first variable - the share of adults with a PhD, master's, or professional degree. The blue shaded areas show regions that score highly on this variable. Washington, D.C. is the clear leader among larger metros (those with more than one million people). Greater Boston and the San Francisco Bay area also have considerable concentrations. But the highest-scoring metros are all college towns that are home to large research-intensive universities - Ithaca (Cornell), Boulder (University of Colorado), Corvallis (Oregon State), Charlottesville (University of Virginia), State College (Penn State), Iowa State (University of Iowa), Lawrence (University of Kansas), and Gainesville (University of Florida).

The second map shows U.S. metros on the second variable - computer scientists and mathematicians as a share of total metro employment. California's Silicon Valley-San Jose rates highly, along with Durham in North Carolina's Research Triangle, Washington, D.C., Boulder, Boston, Austin, Seattle, and several others.

The third map traces U.S. metros on the third variable - scientists as a share of all metro employment. The high-ranking metros here are almost all significant university towns.

But to what extent is metro "braininess" associated with better rates of economic performance? Human capital is a key driver of economic performance, according to a wide range of economic studies. And the Brainiest Metros Index reflects a small but high-powered subset of human capital. To get at this, we ran a series of correlation analyses and scattergraphs comparing the Brainiest Metro Index to measures of regional economic output, income, and wages; innovation and high-tech industry; housing prices; job and class structures; and even metropolitan happiness and well being. These are preliminary, exploratory analyses that simply point to associations between variables. We don't make any claims here about the direction of causality, and we acknowledge that intervening variables may come into play.

Brainier metros have better economic outcomes, being closely associated with economic output measured as gross regional product per capita (with a correlation of. 556), regional income (.563), and regional wages (.646). Metro braininess also goes along with higher housing prices, whether measured by the Case-Shiller Index (.449 ) or by Census data on housing values (.358).

Brainier metros also have higher levels of innovation, measured as patents (.571), and have higher levels of high-tech industry (.698).

Brainier metros also reflect broader regional occupational and class structures. They are positively associated with the creative class (.77) and negatively associated with the working class (-.53).

And brainier metros tend to have happier populations. The correlation between the Brainiest Metros Index and Gallup's measure of metropolitan happiness and well-being is.566.

This poses significant implications for economic development policy, which I pointed out at The Daily Beast:

Though luring new factories and building new stadiums lend themselves to outsize media attention and ostentatious ribbon-cutting ceremonies, the less glamorous work of building up local knowledge assets and leveraging existing university campuses yields far greater and lasting economic gains. Unlike incentive packages and new stadiums, which, despite their price tags of hundreds of millions of dollars, too often turn out to provide benefits that are scant or fleeting, knowledge assets like research universities can't move; they are rooted in the local economy. These brainy metros not only demonstrate a better approach to stimulating state and local economic development, they are helping to rebuild the US economy as a whole.