Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Research and corporations

This article from the NY Times is worth reading. Basically it points out something I've said repeatedly in the past: some corporations think that they can substitute university-funded research for what used to get done in big industrial research labs (like Bell Labs, IBM, Xerox, GM, Westinghouse, Ford Scientific, RCA, etc.). I think that there's definitely a place for corporate funding of university research, provided the company goes into this with their eyes open and conscious of the realities of academic work. However, I don't think university research projects will ever be able to approach the total intellectual effort that IBM or Bell could bring to bear on an important problem. If Bell decided that some piece of solid state physics was important, they could put 35 PhDs onto the problem. There just isn't that kind of concentration of expertise at a university - we're all working on different areas, for the most part.

3 comments:

Alison Chaiken said...

Arguably the kind of work that used to be done by a Bell Labs or GM Research is now more likely to be done by a start-up. A well-funded start-up like Nanosys or Nanosolar can bring 35 PhDs to bear on exactly one problem, and start-ups have the risk-taking culture that is now all but absent at the big companies. Increasingly large tech companies prefer to acquire new technology via acquisitions rather than growing innovations in-house. The new approach minimizes risk. Whether buying new technologies is cheaper or better than home-growing them is less clear.

aklee237 said...

Hello Dr. Natelson

Right now there is a lot of hype about "nanotechnology" and there is not even a clear definition of what "nanotechnology" is or isn't so I was hoping you could provide some clear-headed insight for a college student trying to make a wise decision.

1) How could one eventually pursue a career in this field? Is there a certain major(engineering, natural sciences) that is better suited or do they all lead to the same destination?

2) Will this field see some significant progress in the next 15-20 years or will it take longer than that?

I was thinking about switching my major from Business to Physics but I was debating the wisdom of that decision. It's hard to separate hype from fact and with the current state of America being what it is some type of career path predictability is important now more than ever.

Have a Happy Holiday

Doug Natelson said...

Alison - I agree about startups, but they, too, fall victim to the super-short timeline problem. If they don't end up with a marketable product before they burn through their VC money, they're done. You'd think that'd be a powerful motivator, but for every google there are 100 places with names like "teacozies.com - changing the way the world buys tea cozies via b2b and b2c interactions!" that wasted lots of $ on aeron chairs.
Nanosolar looks like the real deal, though. Very impressive, if they can actually beat coal in $/W.

aklee237 - I'll write a post about that sometime over the holidays....