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Corporate Leaders Explore Role of Physicists in Industry

Over the past decade, major changes have occurred in the industrial research environment. The dynamics of global competition in the marketplace have altered traditional roles of physicists in industry, while offering new career opportunities. The opportunities and challenges facing physicists, as well as the skills and knowledge required for success in this new environment, were discussed during a well-attended Wednesday afternoon session on changing work styles of physicists in industry.

For example, rapid changes in technology have transformed the telecommunications industry. According to William Brinkman (AT&T Bell Laboratories), 10 years ago, AT&T's model of a communication network included only telephones as end terminals; today, it incorporates video, facsimile, and cellular phone as well. But despite the increased complexity of these technologies, cost per circuit has decreased dramatically, opening the door for competitors in the telecommunications marketplace and resulting in tremendous pressure to control costs. Furthermore, "the corporate business is turning over from an integrated vertical business into a horizontal business, and that is changing the dynamics," said Brinkman, pointing to the number of companies who primarily supply semiconductors and equipment to the semiconductor industry as an example.

Nevertheless, opportunities still exist for physicists in such areas as photonics, silicon, character recognition, integrated design, digital design of IC's parallel computer configuration, rf design, and systems work. Brinkman viewed small companies as becoming the major employers of physicists in the years ahead, since smaller companies have shown overall growth in employment in the 1990s, compared to most Fortune 500 companies, whose numbers decreased over the same period.

William Shreve, who heads the instruments and photonics laboratory at Hewlett-Packard Laboratories, identified three major trends he sees developing in the industrial sector: a move from technology-driven defense-related products to market-driven commercial products; a move from long-range to low-cost, short-range R&D activities; and a move from diverse technical skills to a smaller set of core competencies critical to the success of the company. "The role of research is starting to become helping to identify and serve customers, helping to define and create the future," said Shreve. "Because if you can create the future, you don't have to try to guess where it's going to be. You define and maximize the value of your research by reducing uncertainties and minimizing the risk and proprietary values of the new markets."

Research activities in academia and industry have overlapped somewhat in the past. However, in Shreve's view, as major centralized industrial laboratories are downsizing and pushing for more directed, short-term research, this overlap is decreasing and a gap is emerging, creating potentially serious difficulties since universities are better suited to long-range basic research rather than more focused, short-term activities. "We're asking universities to move in a direction where their guidance has to come from the marketplace and from the customers, from whom they're totally isolated," he said. "This could be a critical mistake."

These structural changes have created tremendous pressure on the job market, but Shreve believes that, thanks to a strong grounding in scientific method, physicists actually have many of the characteristics essential to meet research needs today. "Their training has prepared them very well to make unique contributions, different from the kinds of the things employers believe that they do," he said. "I think many employers make the mistake of being too focused on a specific background area, and they may miss the best people by doing that."

The shift to an interdisciplinary, customer-driven research environment also creates the need for a new definition of success, according to Galen Fisher, who heads the physical chemistry department at General Motors R&D Center. "Success is not just understanding and explaining some physical phenomenon; it is measured by whether that advance appears in a product that appeals to the customer, and it's our responsibility to ensure that happens," he said. Furthermore, because of the dramatic corporate down-sizing in industry, researchers today must have a broader base of knowledge and a wider area of impact.

As pressure to shorten time horizons for industrial research intensifies, Fisher believes that industry will increasingly seek to develop strategic plans in tandem with the customer for whom research is being done, with management styles shifting from a "free-wheeling search for technology" to more of a "top-down", goal-oriented enterprise. Under the new paradigm, communication is essential and good interpersonal skills are critical. "The ability to communicate effective is especially important to convey the value added to a product for which the customer is paying for research," he said. "And the value of R&D is increasingly measured by its ability to bring value to the customer."

The interdisciplinary nature of many of today's R&D activities also requires a transition from doing individual basic research to teams of scientists working together, according to Tom Orlowski of the Xerox Wilson Center. "Golf is an individual contributor sport. We need people to play a little less golf and a little more basketball," he said by way of example. While team sports do require individual skills, he continued, "They also need you to recognize that you're working with people that are equally skilled, and you need to harvest everything they have to give, too. To the extent we learn how to do that, we're going to get more work done faster and at a lower cost."

Orlowski highlighted the importance of receiving continual feedback from the customer and described the emergence of what he termed "communities of practice," which incorporate individuals across and even outside the company in order to bring together many different skills and ensure a tighter connection between business divisions and research. "Corporations are changing their look and feel dramatically in response to the economic forces; there's much more trust and cooperation going on, and companies are becoming very specialized in partnering for the skills they may not do as well," he said. "There's a focus on competencies and interdependencies in organizations. We're moving toward defined roles and a more structured workload."

Opportunities also exist for physicists to become entrepreneurs in small start-up high-tech companies offering innovative technologies. The Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program provides seed money for such companies, including start-up efforts, specializing in products of interest to both government and commercial markets. According to Carl Nelson (Small Business Innovation Research), SBIR's objective is to supplement investments from the private sector, allocating a small amount of funding for feasibility studies, which can be increased for development of a prototype product.

"Congress and the Clinton administration want federally funded technology to lead to world-class competitive products that also frequently serve a government need," said Nelson. "Start-up companies have the flexibility to adapt to a shifting marketplace."

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin