I have written multiple times (here and here, for example) about my concern that the structure of financial incentives and corporate governance have basically killed much of the American corporate research enterprise. Simply put: corporate officers are very heavily rewarded based on very short term metrics (stock price, year-over-year change in rate of growth of profit). When faced with whether to invest company resources in risky long-term research that may not pay off for years if ever, most companies opt out of that investment. Companies that do make long-term investments in research are generally quasi-monopolies. The definition of "research" has increasingly crept toward what used to be called "development"; the definition of "long term" has edged toward "one year horizon for a product"; and physical sciences and engineering research has massively eroded in favor of much less expensive (in infrastructure, at least) work on software and algorithms.
I'm not alone in making these observations - Norm Augustine, former CEO of Lockheed Martin, basically says the same thing, for example. Hillary Clinton has lately started talking about this issue.
Now, writing in The New Yorker this week, James Surowiecki claims that "short termism" is a myth. Apparently companies love R&D and have been investing in it more heavily. I think he's just incorrect, in part because I don't think he really appreciates the difference between research and development, and in part because I don't think he appreciates the sliding definitions of "research", "long term" and the difference between software development and physical sciences and engineering. I'm not the only one who thinks his article has issues - see this article at Forbes.
No one disputes the long list of physical research enterprises that have been eliminated, gutted, strongly reduced, or refocused onto much shorter term projects. A brief list includes IBM, Xerox, Bell Labs, Motorola, General Electric, Ford, General Motors, RCA, NEC, HP Labs, Seagate, 3M, Dupont, and others. Even Microsoft has been cutting back. No one disputes that corporate officers have often left these organizations with fat benefits packages after making long-term, irreversible reductions in research capacity (I'm looking at you, Carly Fiorina). Perhaps "short termism" is too simple an explanation, but claiming that all is well in the world of industrial research just rings false.