APS News


About: What Has Happened to Research at Independent Laboratories?

(Back Page, APS News, December 1995)

I would like to applaud Alan Fowler's article, "What Has Happened to Research at Industrial Laboratories?" Fowler correctly points out that a successful economy cannot be sustained without continued investment in basic research. I share this view, but feel that it is becoming a minority viewpoint within the physics community.

It seems that physicists have been acquiescing to what I feel is a growing "political correctness" imposed upon (and increasingly accepted by) physicists. This political correctness brands basic research as a luxury that does not pay for itself, and glorifies applied research and incremental improvements in products and understanding. Fowler describes incremental improvements precisely when he states, "No matter how successful incremental improvements are in the short term, if pursued exclusively, they lead to disaster in the long term."

Basic research should be aggressively funded by the federal government because it is the raw material from which technologies are built. The laser and the transistor are just two examples of technologies which have transformed society, and which could not have been conceived of without the basic understanding of matter and energy which basic research provided. Product development and applied research are equally important and should be pursued just as aggressively.

However, applied research should be done in industry, since companies are eminently better prepared and motivated to do such work than universities or federal laboratories. Basic research, on the other hand, will always find a limited role in industry since the quarterly time scale upon which companies must operate makes the decades-long time scale of basic research untenable. Thus, the federal government is the only institution capable of funding the basic research effort which will provide the knowledge and understanding necessary for the development of new technologies.

The community of physicists seems to want funding for basic research. It is, however, reticent in stating its case forcefully. Rather, we tend to move along with the political winds even when we feel the direction is wrong. More and more, physicists are adopting the view that the pursuit of basic research is hedonistic. It is my hope that this trend will reverse itself and that physicists will cease to apologize for their success and demand funding for basic research - not because it is deserved, but because it is necessary.

Let us be clear: the transistor is not the last scientific discover which will transform the human race. Other profound and fundamental discoveries await. The important question is not whether these discoveries will occur, but where.

John R. Saylor
Naval Research Laboratory


Alan B. Fowler's thoughtful analysis of the changing research climate in our country with respect to industrial research labs has one startling omission from its considerations: research at the multi-disciplinary national laboratories. Although single-purpose labs might well be excluded as too narrowly focused, laboratories such as ours (Los Alamos, but there are at least half a dozen to which this applies) are extremely well suited "to dig into an innovation on the three-to-10 year span," as evidenced by many and recent successful product creations and transfers to industry. We are "particularly adept at the cross-disciplinary efforts required" that Fowler finds lacking at universities.

Fowler is correct that political considerations do not presently favor the application of government labs in this way. However, the industries that are abandoning long-term research due to unavoidable market pressures must also realize that the "worthless" basic patents need to come from somewhere nearby if they are to avoid the "disaster in the long term" to which Fowler refers. It therefore behooves Fowler, and our industrial leaders, to affirm publicly that when the multi-disciplinary laboratories volunteer for this work, that does indeed represent a valid concern for our country's future and not simply institutional self-interests.

Terry Goldman
Los Alamos National Laboratory


Alan Fowler's article entitled, "What Has Happened To Research at Industrial Laboratories?" raised fundamental questions concerning the short-term focus of industrial research and the deterioration of basic research at Bell Labs, IBM, and elsewhere. However, Mr. Fowler failed to articulate any solution, except to bemoan the poor support for patent rights and research funding in Congress. Oddly, physicists seem to enjoy a fatalistic attitude toward the possibility of positive change.

During the past year, as an APS Congressional Science Fellow, I have worked on legislation (H.R. 359) to establish a patent term of 17 years from grant, or 20 years from filing, whichever is longer. Such a formula would protect breakthrough innovations, which often take five to 10 years to be processed by the Patent Office and are therefore disadvantaged by the newly instituted 20-years-from-filing term.

Just as importantly, it would help to turn around the short-term mind set which has destroyed basic research efforts at large companies like IBM over the past few years. Those companies are being run by foolish corporatists who believe that there is no need or opportunity for fundamental research and new inventions. In fact, IBM has been one of the strongest opponents of H.R. 359. This is not surprising in light of their abandonment of basic research in recent years, as Dr. Fowler noted.

Universities and inventor groups have strongly supported H.R. 359 and opposed further weakening of American patent rights. The scientific community has been either silent or needlessly temporizing. It is clear that over dependence on government funding has blinded scientists to the possibilities for research funding in the private sector. The decimation of industrial laboratories proceeded while physicists and others wrung their hands on the sidelines, just as patent protections are being undermined today with our silent acquiescence.

Almost every politician wants to be perceived as being "pro-science" and in favor of progress in research and development. Instead of complaining at afternoon tea about how bad things have become, physicists should get into the habit of letting their elected representatives know about what it important to the scientific community. That implies support for basic research, strong patent protections, and incentives for the rebuilding of the nation's industrial laboratory infrastructure.

John Morgan
Washington, DC
Morgan was an APS Congressional Fellow in 1995 in Rep. Dana Rohrabacher's Office


Alan Fowler has aptly described the apparently dwindling prospects for American industrial - and academic - physics. I would like to suggest at least a rosier light at the end of the tunnel.

The "pure" versus "applied" dichotomy is surely delusory (even though these are convenient categories for politicians). For example the canonical exhibit, the transistor, evolved from 1949 into today's "silicon empire" by a long, intimate interplay of physics, chemistry and engineering lore. Today's outpouring of discovery and invention is, clearly, owing to the powerful synergy of a like variety of disciplines and efforts. Our problem is not downsizing in itself, but the threatened decline of this broad and deep scientific culture, in which the diversity of research institutions, including industrial, and the ready movement of scientists and ideas between them, is a notable aspect.

The "bottom line now" spirit in industry, that Fowler describes, seems an instance of game theory's Prisoner's Dilemma. Any one enterprise, by dropping out of contributing to the science culture, can still to an extent benefit from its existence; but only so long as the others stay the course. Otherwise, all may elect to be impoverished in concert. The challenge is for government to contrive a dispensation where the prosperous alternative, with industry broadly participating together with academia and the public laboratories, prevails - though such interventions may not be possible during a reign of economic fundamentalists in Congress.

There is indeed "a dance in the old girl yet." The sciences today are enjoying a remarkable innovative vitality and speed of advance. My choice of exemplar is the technology and uses of atomic-scale observation and atomic manipulation at solid surfaces. In a few years since the first STMs, we have a growing capability to "see" via probe force and sensed electron density and "near field" light, elaborated by spectroscopy, and to interfere with individual chemical bonds and push atoms around. The steep learning curve apparently is continuing. Applications in materials science and chemistry (and possibly in electronics) are naturally following. Biology is reported on in Physics Today, December 1995. Practical consequences of the field could indeed come to be more than we are prepared for (such as the ethics of gamete surgery). But no one can say - as was memorably suggested in 1960 - that our science is about to run out of steam.

Peter J. Price
IBM/T.J. Watson Research Center

Alan Fowler Responds...

Morgan complains that I did not propose solutions. I was asked to say what has happened, not to solve problems. His comments on IBM are ill-taken given that IBM still discloses the most patents in the world. The canonical time for impact of revolutionary invention is strangely close to the life of patents. Cause, effect or coincidence?

Goldman feels that I have shortchanged public labs. Maybe so. I feel that if they are to be effective they will need coupling to industry. Is that a possibility given the direction of what passes for political thought?

I agree with Saylor on the importance of basic research. I do not believe that industry is obligated to support it when it is irrelevant to its needs. I do feel that industry should support mid-term research that is relevant. I continue to shudder when the transistor is described as the product of basic research. It was in fact the product of top-directed, applied and product motivated research. The basic physics was an outgrowth of the fertile minds of very applied physicists.

I agree with most of Peter Price's comments. Where I disagree I respect his opinion.

I had expected a spate of letters protesting my trashing of universities. I especially regret the use of the phrase "Byzantine politics." It was unfair both to the generally successful Byzantines, who were no worse than their contemporaries, and to universities. Seldom or never has a posse of professors plucked out the eyes of a deposed dean. "Feudal" was the word I wanted. Yet there is much good evidence that cooperative efforts can be achieved not only between disciplines but also surprisingly within departments. To be applauded are increasing efforts of universities and industry to cooperate.

Finally I should like to apologize to some of my more literate readers for improving upon T.S. Eliot and for my abominable French.

Alan Fowler IBM, Yorktown Heights, NY

Basic Research Should Not Depend on Bureaucracy

In the November 1995 issue of APS News, Crystal Barker asked that science not be turned into a partisan issue. The comments were referring to an earlier commentary by Jeff Bingaman. I do not wish to sound like I am criticizing her letter, but I believe she is in error stating that "the majority of the population does not support basic research."

What America is voicing is its disgust with the inappropriate use of government bureaucracy. What America can no longer support is its best trained scientists spending their lives being paid to produce nothing but high quality research proposals for large government grants at the tax-payers' expense. There are plenty of us who want to see basic research receive funding, but do not condone the use of central planning through government bureaucracies as an economically valid means.

Physicists must not complain that we can not do science without cushy government jobs. Reduction in federal spending simply means that physicists must prove the value of basic research dollars to private industry.

Of course that may mean change, and that is what really frightens people. Even physicists.

W.T. Buller
Bethesda, Maryland

Cold Water Thrown on Dowsing...

In reference to the letter by L.W. Frederick et al., (APS News, November 1995), supporting the use of dowsing to find water, we are sorry to pour cold water on their beliefs. They cite work by H-D Betz as evidence of the reality of dowsing. The two Betz papers referred to were examined in an excellent article, "Dowsing Expectations," by J. Raloff in Science News, 148, 90-91 (1995). The APS reader is urged to read Raloff's article, which is epitomized by a photograph of one of Betz's blindfolded dowsers, wearing an obviously incompetent blindfold. Betz is no doubt sincere, but his study is woefully lacking in the sort of controls that are the sine qua non of modern research. Nor must one rely solely on the study by Randi. Almost a quarter of a century ago, a beautifully done study by R.A. Foukes was published in Nature, 229, 163-168 (1971) - that's no older than the car one of us drives, so it must still be relevant. Foukes' results were in complete agreement with Randi's.

In most regions, dowsing is no big deal; water is ubiquitous. Pick a spot at random and you'll probably find water. In fact, however, it may be even easier in thinly- populated desert regions, since the population tends to be strung out along the aquifers. Want to find the water? Find the people. As desert enthusiasts, we volunteer for any expeditions to check this out.

Hydrologically yours,
Leonard Finegold, Drexel University
Robert Park, University of Maryland


Upon closer examination, the highly-publicized Betz endorsement of the dowsing phenomenon seems rather less than well-founded. Betz and his colleague Koenig have steadfastly refused to identify the one dowser who produced most of the data reported, even to the Gesellschaft zur wissenschaftlichen Untersuchung von Parawissenschaften (GWUP), a reputable organization of skeptical scientists in Germany that wished to look into the claims. Furthermore, the press release that preceded the Betz paper referred to it as the result of "a 10- year study." That would imply that 10 years ago, an experiment was launched to gather and assess data on this phenomenon, when in actuality the paper was a summary of 10 years of reports made by the dowsers themselves.

Dowsing still is, not to the surprise of most scientists, an unfounded claim. My present challenge, now amounting to U.S. $507,000 for the performance of ONE successful series of experiments establishing the existence of a dowsing facility, remains unclaimed, even by the Quadro Corporation, who manufacture and sell a $955 high-tech version of the popular bent-coat-hanger version of dowsing stick, offered for sale to boards of education to detect arms and drugs in school lockers.

James Randi
Plantation, Florida

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin