A sporting chance for R&D
Rick Nelson, Executive Editor- July 1, 2003
Bell Labs, the paragon of electronics research, is a shadow of its former self. A Wall Street Journal article reports the Labs' staff is one-third its 1996 level, a condition that MIT president Charles Vest calls a national tragedy.
One field where R&D thrives is sports. Our June issue reported on the efforts of a team at the l'Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL), which helped Team Alinghi win this year's America's Cup races. Said EPFL director Jan-Anders E. Månson, "We were exceptionally fortunate in that we had people willing to spend millions of dollars to be at the leading edge of knowledge."
In the non-sports industries, though, owners want to earn millions of dollars from limited knowledge gleaned by minimally funded researchers. That's understandable, and Bell Labs executives were right when they told the WSJ that the Labs' goal is not to serve some vague public interest but rather the specific demands of parent Lucent Technologies' stockholders.
Sir Robin Saxby, chairman of ARM Holdings (Cambridge, UK) echoed a similar dissatisfaction with pure research in a June 2 address to the Design Automation Conference (Anaheim, CA). He said, "Technology itself has no value. Satisfying real end-customer needs potentially creates value."
That first sentence may be true, in the sense that cash has no value: You can't eat it, and you can't build shelter with it. It's good to have, though, when you visit the grocery store or the lumberyard. Similarly, when you're looking to satisfy real end-customer needs, it's nice to have some basic technology to apply to the task.
Academia is a potential venue for pure research, but universities aren't immune to the profit motive. The Detroit Free Press reported in April that a team of University of Michigan researchers may have withheld promising breast-cancer research results while pursuing a potentially lucrative patent.
If neither industry nor academia is ideal for pure research, perhaps a collaboration offers hope. One model is the Sweden-based SOCware Design Cluster, a university-industry partnership that provides what Rolf Rising, a director of the sponsoring Invest in Sweden Agency, calls "precompetitive" research that participants can later apply to commercial SOC designs for wireless communications.
Another alternative—turning electronics R&D into a sport that attracts America's Cup levels of wealth—doesn't seem promising.
Contact Rick Nelson at email@example.com