Thursday, December 17, 2009

Physics and Industry

I read this column on the back page of this month's APS News, and I think it hits a lot of the right notes, until this paragraph:

Many of the Nation’s physics departments and other departments staffed by physicists should encourage some of their faculty members to take a two or three year sabbatical leave and join the physics staffs of companies wishing to use their skills to strengthen or rebuild their industrial bases. With the expected cutbacks in Federal spending for everything, including scientific research, the physics academic staffs, that already spend far too much of their time writing proposals to compete for Government grants, should help the Nation by joining one of the many companies who really could use their skills to refine their products and introduce the innovations so characteristic of their physics training. In their new industrial positions, the successes of these industrially focused physicists would encourage further enrollments in physics and all related sciences. Meanwhile the Nation’s manufacturing base would be strengthened and rebuilt.

While this is nice in the abstract, I'm trying to imagine how this is any more likely to happen than me getting my own unicorn and a candy-cane tree.  How can an academic physicist with a functioning research group possibly take off for two or three years to work in industry?  What happens to their students?  Their other funding?  What university would actually encourage this, given that they have to have the salary line, lab space, and office space still there, and that they have teaching/service needs?  In an era when companies are loathe to hire permanent research staff and give them proper facilities and resources (allegedly because such things do not maximize (short-term) profits and therefore dilute shareholder value), why on earth would a company want a revolving door of temporary employees that need the same resources as permanent staff but are in continual need of training and business education?

It seems to me that a more realistic approach, if you really want to encourage an industrial R&D resurgence in the US, would focus on tax and policy incentives to convince companies to invest in this stuff.  Discourage ultrashort-term strategies that maximize next quarter's profits rather than ensuring long term health of the company.    Give federal loan guarantees to companies that want to establish research efforts.  I'm 100% certain that if the industrial R&D jobs were there, we would fill them - the problem is that US companies overall have decided that investing in physics doesn't give them a quick stock price boost.  If you want to encourage more interactions between university research faculty and industry, fine.  Give tax breaks for industrial consulting or university research funding by industry.  (Though biomedical research shows that extremely strong coupling between researchers and their profit-motivated funding sources is not necessarily a good thing.)


MattPatt said...

Here's a question -- how is this measurably different from saying "many more people should do a postdoc in industry before becoming professors?" I suppose the key element of this idea is the existing connections that a midcareer professor will be able to leverage and the ease with which he or she could build new ones, whereas someone just starting out wouldn't have either advantage?

Bunny said...

What about the other way around? Encourage industrial researchers to go on sabbatical with academics, or a joint venture where the companies can provide some of the financial resources. They get the basic research they need without having to fully fund it, like the IPRIME program (

Douglas Natelson said...

Bunny - Joint ventures are definitely something to be encouraged. Rice has had a nice relationship in the last couple of years with Lockheed Martin. The challenge still remains to convince companies (their boards and shareholders) that developing such relationships is actually good, and not just siphoning away capital.

gs said...

Doug, this post seems relevant to your concerns.

Anonymous said...

why is it that some professors have an aversion to private industry?

At my school, it seems like "private industry" is a four letter word. I know many professors who turn their noses up at private industry.

Jackson said...

Thank you..