The Industrial Research Institute: Past and Future: A Historian of Innovation and IRI's President Offer a Portrait of IRI's Roots and a Vision for Its Future

By Hintz, Eric S.; Bernstein, Ed | Research-Technology Management, November-December 2013 | Go to article overview

The Industrial Research Institute: Past and Future: A Historian of Innovation and IRI's President Offer a Portrait of IRI's Roots and a Vision for Its Future


Hintz, Eric S., Bernstein, Ed, Research-Technology Management


"Selling the research idea": the genesis of the industrial research institute, 1916-1945

Since its founding in 1938, the Industrial Research Institute (IRI) has provided a forum for researchers to discuss common challenges and share best practices in research management through its program of regular conferences, networking events, and since 1958, its award-winning journal Research Technology Management (originally Research Management). From its charter membership of 14 firms, IRI has grown to include over 200 corporate and federally funded laboratories. Thus, as it celebrates its 75th year, IRI is widely considered the world's leading R&D trade organization.

But IRI did not spring forth fully formed in 1938, like Athena from the head of Zeus. Rather, its roots were set much earlier, during World War I. Beginning in 1916, a small group of industrial researchers spent two decades gradually building a constituency for the organization by "selling the research idea" to corporate executives and the public at large. Their promotional campaign employed mass media outlets like newspapers and radio to demonstrate the benefits of industrial research to the general public, while targeting executives through regular meetings, how-to books, and highly publicized tours of the nation's R&D labs. Over time, men like IRI founder Maurice Holland cultivated the group of like-minded executives and research directors that launched the organization in 1938. This article describes IRI's prehistory, mapping the path to its founding and incorporation.

World War I and the National Research Council

World War I was a watershed event in the emergence and growth of industrial research, as both university-based and industrial scientists capitalized on the opportunity to gain funding, recognition, and status by serving the cause of military preparedness. In April 1916, the National Academy of Sciences, led by astronomer George Ellery Hale, drafted a proposal to create the National Research Council (NRC) as a way of mobilizing American scientists to help solve the military's scientific and technical problems. The NRC appointed several industrial scientists to its ranks, including plastics pioneer Leo Baekeland of the General Bakelite Company, General Electric research director Willis Whitney, and AT&T's chief engineer and research director, John J. Carty. The NRC's physicists and chemists thrived during the war effort, as they developed sonar and a host of chemically synthesized explosives (Hughes 2004).

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Notably, in addition to committees on physics, chemistry, and nitrate supply, the NRC also established a Committee for the Promotion of Industrial Research, chaired by Carty. This committee would help the Council promote "increased use of scientific research in the development of American industries," one of several goals articulated by the Council in its June 1916 organizational plan. On May 11, 1918--six months before the armistice--President Woodrow Wilson signed an executive order establishing the NRC on a permanent, peacetime basis. (1) Thus, even as the war still raged, the NRC began to shift its emphasis "from military to industrial service" (Noble 1977, 154). Just days after Wilson's order, Hale told a dinner audience that "under peace conditions, the Council recognizes that one of its chief functions is to promote a wider appreciation of the national importance of scientific and industrial research" (Hale 1919, 4).

However, the NRC's promotional activities suffered initially due to organizational turmoil and interdivisional squabbling; between 1916 and 1923, the division endured several reorganizations and name changes that distracted its members from their mission. The NRC's work was revitalized in December 1923 when the NRC Executive Board formed the consolidated Division of Engineering and Industrial Research under the leadership of chairman Frank B. …

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