Changing World of Industrial Research Captured in Study of Physicists
Gwynne, Peter, Research-Technology Management
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.
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. The current view, the report points out, "holds that for the innovation process to be effective, nearly all of the company's programs need to be involved, including R&D, marketing, and production. This in turn has increasingly moved control for R&D up the corporate ladder to the CEO and other top executives, resulting in less autonomy for individual workers."
Interviews conducted by Butler and Anderson reveal two clear trends. First, corporate research is shifting from "'invention' toward 'innovation' where innovation focuses on integrating inventions into a completed process from the conceptual beginnings through manufacturing to customer acquisition and use." Second, that shift has failed to produce an accepted approach to industrial research. "Companies are struggling to find the best mix of longer-term research to develop new technologies versus shorter-term programs tied to product improvements," Butler says.
Nature of the Struggle
The experiences of some of the most prominent industrial research laboratories illustrate the nature of that struggle. Bell Telephone Laboratories used to epitomize the academic-like approach to corporate research, an approach that encouraged many researchers to tackle almost any project they liked as long as it had some relevance, if only minor, to communications. Today, 25 years after the break-up of AT&T made the organization a part of Lucent Technologies, which recently merged with French firm Alcatel, (see RTM, July-August 2009, pp. 5-7), the approach differs markedly. As spokesman Paul Ross explains, "Bell Labs considers and classifies research projects using a number of different criteria: the time frame for when a project will be relevant--near or long-term--the development process, and its projected impact, whether it represents an incremental step forward or a revolutionary change."
Transitions at GE
Another famed industrial research lab, GE's Corporate R&D Center, has undergone its own series of transitions. Traditionally, the center had largely carte blanche to carry out research that might or might not have relevance to the needs of the company's business units. That changed in the late 1980s. Instead of answering to corporate management, research teams had to obtain their funding from individual business units, by performing research relevant to those units' needs. Early this decade, the model changed once more. Business units took on their own development projects, leaving the central facility once more to pursue long-range, cutting-edge research, albeit more directed than earlier. "Our long-range research programs create the breakthroughs that create differentiation for GE products and services and win in our markets," explains Mark Little, director of GE Research.
The organization is flexible enough to react to new opportunities. In June, GE announced that it will build a research center in Michigan that will attract scientists and engineers put out of work by the slump in the automobile industry. The Advanced Manufacturing and Software Technology Center will focus on renewable energy components, software and health care information technology.
Seeking Technology Outside
Another key finding of the HOPI study is that many companies rely on external sources to create their innovative technology. "Rather than inefficiently creating new knowledge through large-scale corporate R&D programs," the study states, "several corporations in our study assign a portion of their R&D to assess knowledge created elsewhere for possible license or acquisition and development within the corporation."
Several sources of such knowledge are available. Some firms seek out physicist entrepreneurs and physics start-up companies whose technology they buy or license. Some work with specialist innovation shops such as Intellectual Ventures, the organization created by Nathan Myhrvold, Microsoft's former chief technology office. Others rely on open innovation procedures that allow firms to track down the appropriate scientist or scientists to solve specific problems they encounter (see RTM, November-December 2007, pp. 8-9). And still others arrange new types of collaboration with academic institutions.
Late in 2006, for example, IBM joined in an open collaborative research program with seven universities across the Unites States to carry out fundamental research on software for such areas as privacy, security and medical decision-making. The open collaborative research concept aims to avoid many of the intellectual property issues that have delayed or stymied academic--industrial collaborations in the past.
The HOPI study contains one more significant finding: the somewhat counter-intuitive advantage of working in industry. "While nearly all the physicists whom we interviewed said that they had less control today over the work they do than they or their counterparts had earlier, we found that corporate scientists still have substantial autonomy" the group reports. "Younger researchers, in particular, noted the burden that academic scientists have to fund their research, arguing that the increased direction imposed on corporate research by the business units is minimal compared to the requirements imposed on academic researchers by their funding sources."
Grasping for Optimal Way
But if industrial scientists experience more freedom than their academic colleagues, their managers continue to grasp for the optimal way to plan and oversee their R&D enterprises and to balance long- and short-term projects. Only one factor is clear. "Even where industry engages in longer-term research," the HOPI report states, "it can no longer afford, if it ever could, knowledge development and acquisition for knowledge's sake alone."
To extend this study, the AIP's history center and its Neils Bohr Library & Archives are now collaborating on a new, three-year study of the role that entrepreneurship plays in industrial R&D. The History of Physics Entrepreneurship will involve interviews of 100 physicists and their associates, chosen to represent several varieties of startup companies that involve physicists.
The HOPI final report is available online at http://www.aip.org/history/ pubs/HOPI_Final_report.pdf.
Peter Gwynne, contributing editor in Boston, Massachusetts firstname.lastname@example.org…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Changing World of Industrial Research Captured in Study of Physicists. Contributors: Gwynne, Peter - Author. Journal title: Research-Technology Management. Volume: 52. Issue: 5 Publication date: September-October 2009. Page number: 2+. © 2009 Industrial Research Institute Inc. COPYRIGHT 2009 Gale Group.
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