Sunday, February 26, 2012

Where is Bell Labs Now That We Need It?

Jon Gertner has an article in The New York Times based on his book, The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation. Bell labs personnel invented the transistor, fiber optics, the solar cell, and satellite communications among many other things. Gertner emphasizes the importance of well funded laboratories that put really good people together to work on ways to do useful things better or cheaper.

I had the opportunity in my first professional job as a research engineer to work in such a laboratory, and especially benefited from working directly under Pete Kelly, who later headed his own research lab. I also learned a lot from chances to ask questions of and interact with really senior scientists.

I was involved in a minor way in a study by the Office of Technology Assessment (killed by the Republicans) which led to a publication: Information Technology R&D: Trends and Issues. The study was occasioned by the breakup of Ma Bell, and the threat to Bell Labs which would no longer have the deep pockets of a national telephone monopoly to support it.

The National Institutes of Health represent the kind of facility that Gertner would like to see. The National Institute of Standards and Technology is another. I suspect that these days only a government can provide the kind of environment that Bell Labs once provided, but to do so it would have to have a strong commercial orientation, focusing on the development of "disruptive technologies".

Source of the image

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