Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Where Have You Gone, Bell Labs?


The root of the current lack of new, high-quality job creation is the massive scaling back of science and engineering research, which has in the past made enormous contributions to science, technology, and the economy, including the creation of millions of high-paying jobs, says management consultant Adrian Slywotzky.

Here's what's needed to get that model back on track, he suggests:

• Clear national goals in two or three key areas, such as carbon-free energy and preventive medicine.

• Government commitment of $10 billion a year above and beyond spending for national agencies to jump-start new industrial research labs.

• Government tax credits for corporations that commit to spending 5% to 10% (or more) of R&D on basic research.


I have some mixed feeling about this article. Most of my life I would have agreed strongly with the sentiments of the author. I am a graduate of 30 years with IBM as a technologist, technology manager, internal entrepreneur and cultural change agent. And, now 20 years as a futurist and consultant. My instinctive reaction would have been "right on". But, now I'm not sure.

For years we have worshiped at the altar of economic value created for the stockholder. In business this means the rationalization of all its operations to achieving that goal. And, with that, and globalization, comes the stockholder's short term perspective. Investment in research with uncertain and long term payback gets reduced or cut off.

Unfortunately we've adopted a parallel belief system in education. So, we can't depend upon our universities to provide the research either. And, as we continue to inflict more measurements on education all the way down through public schools, we emphasize short term payback.

The change described in the article is either cyclical or its structural. If it's cyclical, then all we have to is wait for the economic flowering when big companies are awash in profits, and in their wisdom, they will invest these profits in research for the future.

If the change is structural, then "big research" is gone forever. There are numerous indications in many different industries that the trends of decentralization, disintemediation, openness and fragmentation are real and structural. If that is so, then what would research look like? How would it work? What kind of research could be done in a fragmented, disintermediated, open and decentralized way?

I don't know. And, I've not heard from anyone that does know.

But, isn't time that we begin to look at this issue head on. If not, and someone else does, we'll really suffer economically in the future.

It's like Morgan Freeman's character said in The Shawshank Redemption, "Get busy living, or get busy dying."

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