A long time ago when I was a fledgling student studying college physics and chemistry, I ventured into the haunting, dark recesses of our library which housed science classics. As I browsed through those classic volumes by Kelvin, Einstein, Raleigh and Medawar and as the dust gathered on to my clothes, I saw a 1930s book titled "Electronics" by Bill Shockley, the Bill Shockley of the legendary Bell Labs who had played a key part in the invention of the transistor. As I eagerly opened the pages of the book in a cloud of dust, I was surprised to see equations covering the pages. Almost no diagrams of circuits and components found in modern electronic texts, but reams and reams of quantum mechanics detailing calculations of current density and electron transport. It was then that I realised that that singular device, the transistor, had its conceptual roots in fundamental physics. Without quantum mechanics and the basic physics of electron flow the transistor may never have been possible. The experience drove home a fundamental point for me; without the roots of basic research that nourish and inspire, there are no fruits of applications possible.
Sadly, the same Bell Labs which exemplified all that basic research stood for and which for a long time was the greatest industrial basic research laboratory in the world, is now getting divorced from its roots. An article in Nature documents the sad case of the once scientific giant whose basic physics research team has dwindled to four scientists, an extremely sad state of affairs. The division that generated six Nobel Prizes for basic and breakthrough research has now shrunk to basically non-existence. Unfortunately similar trends are seen elsewhere. The consequences for future technology cannot be anything but dire. In the last fifty years almost every one of the technological innovations that we take for granted, including the computer, laser, transistor and digital memory to name a few have come from research in basic science. Nobel Prizes have been gathered in the dozens by scientists who worked on these discoveries. Where Bell Labs scientists won Nobels for the laser and the transistor, IBM researchers in a grand encore performance won two Nobels in the 1980s- one for the invention of the Scanning Tunneling Microscope (STM) and one for high-temperature superconductors. Most recently it was academic scientists who won the Nobel for discovering Giant Magnetoresistance, the phenomenon that powers our iPods and computers.
This trend is hardly surprising however. As companies move increasingly towards satisfying the bottom line for the next quarter and pleasing shareholders, they are having scant patience and even more scant funding for basic research. While product development may diversify in the short term, it's like water flowing over a long distance which is slowly cut off at the source; while the flow of water will persist and even appear normal for some time, it is undoubtedly going to shut down after a while. With their current policies of downsizing even applied departments, let alone ones doing basic research, companies are headed for a downfall in new product innovation in the long term. And when I mean "new", I don't mean just another version of Windows or another MP3 player. I am talking about the kind of innovation that leads to a paradigm shift, an outburst of raw data resulting from a single discovery that drives ideas, applications and services for many future decades. Transistors, lasers and STMs all revolutionized the practice of science and technology.
Such innovation can be possible only if we go back to the roots of technology. After all, every technological invention that we are aware of is ultimately based on the laws of physics and chemistry. It is only by exploring these laws that we can discover new applications for them. Consider organic semiconductors and quantum computing that will promise untold increases in computer power that will overcome Moore's Law, or number theory and quantum entanglement that will allow for foolproof data encryption. If the history of basic industrial research has taught us anything, it is that only by pushing the frontiers of the fundamental laws of science can one achieve windfalls of industrial innovation. And yet it is precisely this kind of research that industry is ignoring, at its own and our great peril.
Sadly, science is not like cocaine, promising instant rewards. It treads a risky path, strewn with blind alleys and failures. And yet treading this path is an essential series of steps to achieve the few gems scattered on it. Only in the uncertainty of scientific discovery lies great opportunity. But companies, whether they are hardware developers or pharmaceutical innovators, want the gems without having to vet the stones. Pipe dreams. The greatest entrepreneurs of our time, Warren Buffet and Bill Gates, became who they are by engaging in a philosophy of investment. Invest now, reap the rewards tomorrow. Industry seems to have forgotten this essential philosophy of promising productivity. If this trend continues for long, the verdant branches of the tree that we see today, already divorced from their roots, will wither away to nothingness. And Bell Labs will be the star at the top that first toppled.
P.S. Excimer fumes too
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