The problem the country faces is that the conditions in which Charles Kao, Willard Boyle, and George Smith made their breakthroughs are harder to come by today. Kao, for example, made his breakthroughs in fiber optics (the thin glass threads that now carry a vast chunk of the world’s phone and data traffic) while at Standard Telecommunications Laboratories in the U.K. Similarly, Boyle and Smith designed the first digital imaging technology while working at Bell Labs, the legendary research organization that was once part of AT&T.
What was so special in these corporate labs of the 1960s?
In these settings, world-class scientists were allowed to work on deep-going, “basic” research quite freely, albeit in close proximity to commercial product development. The result was uniquely productive. No wonder Energy Secretary Steve Chu--another Nobel laureate--often recalls fond memories of his time at Bell Labs, calling it a special place that promoted high-intensity collaboration and empowered scientists to conduct long-term basic research that could lead to new breakthroughs while also holding them accountable for delivering products to the parent company. Indeed, millions of jobs have resulted from such contributions to science and technology, including such Bell Labs inventions as the transistor, photovoltaic cells, and cell phone technology.
I'm not well-informed enough to know whether it's really true that such labs are scarce in the corporate world, but as someone looking at job prospects, I know they're hard to find. I would be thrilled to see more room for long-term, basic research in the corporate world. It would leave more room in academia for people focused on asking fundamental scientific questions (as opposed to things like drug discovery, which can lead to breakthrough treatments, but not, in spite of the claims of the field of chemical biology, breakthroughs in our understanding of biology). And, corporate basic research labs could be really great places to work for the large group of scientists who get sick of the drawbacks of academia, but would prefer to do basic research.
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