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 LAST WORD

by James M. Tien

Needed: A Focus on Basic Research

Universities, with government funding, must become the new Bell Labs.


In November 1947, collaborators John Bardeen and Walter Brattain made the technical discovery that led to invention of the point-contact transistor. This discovery has monumentally changed every industry, and every aspect of our lives, leading to the development of the integrated circuit and, of course, the computer, and turning the 20th century into the Electronic Age. It was made possible by Bell Telephone Laboratories, an AT&T and Western Electric partnership dedicated to basic research. Following World War II and through the1960s, Bell Labs and other such facilities in world-renowned - and somewhat monopolistic - companies like GE, IBM, and Xerox granted researchers considerable leeway to follow their intuition. The resulting innovations, like computers, polymers, and wireless telecommunications, fueled the U.S. economy.

After the 1984 breakup of AT&T, Bell Labs could no longer count on the stable funding that comes from being part of a government-regulated monopoly. Increasingly difficult to justify, research that didn't rapidly contribute to the bottom line was rejected or abandoned. After 1996, Bell Labs, as Lucent Technologies, became more focused on development of commercial innovations. Such innovations have become progressively more incremental, diminishing their ability to be truly transformative. Today, global competition and the demands of the stock market have forced corporations to cut their long-term investment in research and development. .

President Obama has committed his administration to bolstering the nation's research-and-development enterprise. He proposes to make permanent the 1981 R&D tax credit, which now must be regularly renewed by Congress. The tax credit was allowed to lapse - for the 14th time - at the end of 2009 but most likely will be revived later this year and made retroactive to January 1. Obama has declared, "This is a tax credit that returns $2 to the economy for every dollar we spend. It will be far more effective when businesses [like yours] can count on it, when you've got some stability and reliability." Making the credit permanent will benefit industrial research, which is inherently a multiyear investment.

Even with R&D tax credits, industry no longer gives its scientists the leeway to follow their intuition.

In addition, President Obama is urging Congress to increase R&D spending following a flat period of funding from 2003 to 2008 during the George W. Bush presidency. His FY 2011 budget calls for a 5.9 percent increase in non-defense R&D.

Both the president's tax-credit plan and budget proposals are encouraging but insufficient. The business of industry is to stay in business, and so it will tend to focus - and appropriately so - on market-driven development, somewhat at the expense of basic research.

Likewise, government support of university R&D must be redirected to focus more on basic research. The new knowledge that results from basic research and other inquiry activities is often intangible and may benefit society without directly reimbursing its investors. The increasingly popular approach of requiring universities to seek out the financial collaboration of industry as a match for government funds will only turn university investigators into developers, not researchers. Federal policies instead need to sustain research efforts over time so as to glean significant results. And to maintain U.S. leadership in research, as the National Science Board recently noted, government funding should be focused on transformative, world-leading research.

In sum, while dominant, almost monopolistic corporations undertook basic research in the mid-20th century, government-supported universities must take over the research role in the 21st century. Although successful development efforts will ensure the nation's economic prosperity in the near term, only basic research will lead to the yet-to-be-invented transistor that will power the transformative innovations - and new jobs - of tomorrow.



James M. Tien is distinguished professor and dean of the College of Engineering at the University of Miami.

 

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