Changing World of Industrial Research Captured in Study of Physicists

Article excerpt

Major corporate laboratories have increasingly shifted their emphasis toward development at the expense of the more basic research over the past quarter-century. During the same time span, individual researchers in those labs have pursued knowledge acquisition in the open market as well as knowledge creation within their own environment. Yet high-technology industry has failed to reach any agreement on the best way to conduct its research. No consensus exists on the appropriate relationships among science, technology and its business interests, on the best mix of long-term basic research on potentially disruptive technologies and short-term development intended to improve current products, and on the relative risks and benefits of research collaborations between corporations and government, academia and other firms.

These are the main conclusions of a five-year study recently released by the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics (ALP). The study, titled History of Physicists in Industry (HOPI), gathered data from bench physicists, managers and information specialists in industrial laboratories at 15 large high-technology companies: 3M, Agilent Technologies, Corning, Eastman Kodak, ExxonMobil, Ford, General Atomics, General Electric, Honeywell, IBM, Lockheed Martin, Lucent Technologies Bell Laboratories, Raytheon, Texas Instruments, and Xerox.

The 15 corporations specialize in a variety of technologies, from aerospace and transportation to energy, imaging, computing, and even life science. Whatever the specialty, industrial physicists and their managers reported similar experiences in the evolution of their R&D focus.

Snapshots of the Industrial Enterprise

The study aimed "to determine the work that physicists do in high-tech firms and the way in which their work is organized and documented," says Orville Butler, associate historian at the AIP center, who carried out the project with center director Joseph Anderson. Their report provides a series of snapshots of the changing attitudes toward the research enterprise of large technology-based companies.

Those changes came largely in response to a rapidly evolving business environment. "[G]rowing competition, both within the United States and perhaps more significantly, from Asia, forced companies to re-evaluate the relationship of R&D to the company," the HOPI report states. Other factors that have influenced industrial research include the emergence of disruptive new technologies, such as the Internet and imaging technologies for life science, and increasing collaborations between industry, government, and academia.

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In response to the changing environment, Butler and Anderson found, companies transformed their approaches to R&D. "[The] changes include shorter research time frames, shifts in the nature of R&D funding and, in some cases, a shift from knowledge creation to knowledge evaluation and acquisition," the report states. Thus, the separation of research and development characteristic of the largest industrial research labs up to the late 1970s no longer exists. Today, corporations expect their research labs and personnel to justify themselves through their contributions to the bottom line by creating disruptive technologies, improving current products and services, or--preferably--doing both.

D at the Expense of R

The growing emphasis on development at the expense of what has been called directed basic research has had a significant impact on the roles of both the traditional corporate research laboratory and individual research physicists (and other scientists). The central laboratories, the study notes, "are now dominated by individual business (i.e., product) units or replaced entirely by labs operated by those units."

Individual research scientists, meanwhile, have lost much of the autonomy that they enjoyed in past decades. …