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BY HENRY PETROSKI
HENRY PETROSKI

CELEBRATING R&D

By now, we know both are essential to a nation’s growth.


Organized industrial research and development programs in America date from the latter part of the 19th century, when Thomas Edison established a laboratory at Menlo Park, N.J. His eventual goal was to invent “useful things every man, woman, and child in the world wants” and could afford to buy.

Unlike Edison himself, the directors of the Edison Light Co. questioned the value of maintaining an R&D effort. Westinghouse Corp., Edison’s arch competitor in the electricity business, started its own laboratory in 1886. Only in 1900, at the urging of its legendary electrical engineer Charles P. Steinmetz, did General Electric, which by then had incorporated Edison’s company, establish a new R&D laboratory at Schenectady, N.Y.

In the early 20th century, many other American manufacturers, including DuPont, Corning, Kodak, and Alcoa, set up their own R&D organizations. The establishment of a formal research laboratory united a company’s previously independent researchers into a collaborative community. Among other purposes for having an R&D lab were the development of new products, the maintenance of a competitive edge in the industry, and the avoidance of antitrust suits by a firm’s doing its own exploratory work.

Each company’s R&D enterprise had its particular characteristics and focus, usually reflecting the laboratory director’s and the company’s beliefs about the relative importance of science and engineering. There was thus no single model of how research and development should be conducted. Westinghouse’s lab was known to be driven by engineering considerations, while Kodak’s was driven by science.

The most ambitious and successful national R&D effort was the development of the atomic bomb under the rubric of the Manhattan Project. This government-sponsored science-and-engineering achievement led to a new way of looking at and funding R&D. The key individual driving this change was Vannevar Bush, who was known as the “czar of research” because of his wartime involvement in heading up newly formed government research organizations.

Bush’s famous postwar report to the president on the importance of research and development, “Science — the Endless Frontier,” argued that “basic scientific research is scientific capital.” The persuasiveness of the report led to the adoption of a linear model of R&D, in which scientific discovery leads directly to engineering development. This guiding principle dominated U.S. R&D policy for two decades of growth in government funding, until challenged by a Department of Defense study that found little cause-and-effect relationship.

By the end of the 1970s, R&D funding was about equally divided between federal and private industrial sources. After that time, federal funding declined, but industrial expenditures continued to grow as a percentage of gross domestic product. Now, the collective U.S. expenditure on R&D amounts to about 40 percent of the world’s total.

Today, in many corporations, spending on R&D is constrained by the desire to keep Wall Street happy with good quarterly and other short-term financial performance. By its very nature, R&D takes time and money that may not contribute to the bottom line for years or even decades to come. As a result, industrial R&D spending is an easy target for cost cutters, especially in bad financial times.

Questions persist: How much is necessary, and should basic science or engineering take precedence?

In recent years, there has been a trend in American industry to scale back on basic research in favor of development. This may be lamented by scientists, but engineers need not view it so negatively. Engineering-driven research does not exclude science; it just puts it in a position of following rather than leading engineering goals.

Vannevar Bush may have erred in overemphasizing the role of science in the R&D enterprise, but his belief that it was essential to maintaining a nation’s scientific and engineering health and growth is an important lesson to remember, especially in poor economic times.

Henry Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University. Last November he delivered one of five invited lectures at the 100th-anniversary celebration of the R&D program at the Corning Corp.

 

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