APS News

The Research Environment in a Global Economy

By Robert M. White

white The research paradigm has changed since the early years of the Cold War, when basic research was generously supported in the belief that this research would serendipitously lead to new technology or, at least, establish a reservoir of knowledge that could be tapped when needed. In the post-Cold War era, economic growth has become the national focus in research and development.

A list of the topics covered in Physics News in 1995 provides a list of commercially relevant technologies of current interest to physicists: lasing without inversion, protein folding, semiconductor noncrystallites, biomembranes, quantum computing, nanotribology, and high temperature superconductors.

There are two principal causes for this change in the research paradigm. First, we face global competitors both in the domestic U.S. market and in increasingly important world markets, competitors who are very adept at tapping into the knowledge base to manufacture products with qualities and development cycles that give them a competitive advantage. Secondly, technology today has become extremely complex and multi-disciplinary. Electronics now comprises 20 percent of the value of an automobile, for example. The innovation process has also become tightly coupled from discovery to application. Sophisticated analysis techniques and rapid communication have shortened the development time. Thus, high risk research may not mean long-range research!

A good example of this is the recent discovery of giant magnetoresistance. With the development of thin film deposition techniques, physicists naturally began to explore the properties of ultrathin films and multilayers. In 1989, a group in France discovered that multilayers of iron and copper showed a very large change in their in-plane resistance, depending on whether the magnetization in the iron layers was parallel or antiparallel. As a result of a combination of theory and materials science, these so-called spin valves now operate at room temperature in fields as low as a few oersteds. This makes them candidates for field sensors, such as for the fields associated with the data patterns recorded on magnetic disks or tapes. Indeed, recording heads employing this phenomenon are now in development, only seven years after it appeared in Physical Review Letters.

In this changed environment, corporations cannot independently develop technology. The corporate laboratory is being supplemented, if not replaced, by alliances, quite often with small companies that have developed unique technologies with venture capital. Such alliances also free corporations from the old sequential innovation process. To use a metaphor from computer architecture, innovation today is like "pipelining," where multiple events are simultaneously overlapped in execution.

The national laboratories, somewhat isolated from the global economy by their agency missions, have not seen the dramatic change that corporate laboratories have. They still attempt to be self-sufficient. However, political forces during the early 1990s have opened the national labs to industrial collaboration through the mechanism of the Corporate Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) program.

Our laws have also changed in recognition of this need to establish partnerships. The National Cooperative Research Act of 1984 allows corporations to form research consortia without fear of antitrust reprisal. Since partnerships involve the exchange of information, protection of intellectual property rights is important. In 1980, the University and Small Business Patent Procedure Act (known as the Bayh-Dole Act) gave universities the right to own and subsequently license research results developed with federal funding. Prior to this time, such results were in the public domain, which inhibited their commercialization. Programs driven by federal agency missions, such as those of the Department of Defense and NASA, will continue to be a source of commercially relevant technology.

Since technology is such an important factor in economic growth, some felt that its development should not be left to chance. Thus, the federal government has also created new programs specifically to stimulate industry to develop technologies which they might otherwise regard as too risky. The Advanced Technology Program (ATP) in the Department of Commerce is an example. While ATP provides matching funds to industry for technology development, its greater value may be its impact on the innovation process through the growth and acceptance of partnerships. ATP's unrestricted funding to partnerships provides an incentive for the formation of research consortia. Furthermore, more than $85 million has flowed from ATP to more than 100 universities subcontracted by ATP grant recipients, largely to provide the fundamental understanding associated with the technology being developed.

This new paradigm means that physicists will increasingly find themselves in a much more complex, less sheltered research environment, one that is characterized by multiple funding sources, by concerns about intellectual property, by technology transfer mechanisms, and by partnership agreements. I believe the challenge facing the APS is to help prepare young physicists for this new world.

Robert M. White heads the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department at Carnegie Mellon University. Prior to joining CMU in 1993, he served as the first Undersecretary of Commerce for Technology. White will chair the APS Panel on Public Affairs in 1997. This article appeared in the August 1996 issue of the newsletter of the APS Forum on Industrial and Applied Physics.


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