U.S. innovation: On the skids
Technologists look to a new White House to reverse decade-long slide in R&D
Computerworld - It would be hard to exaggerate the angst that has gripped the U.S. in recent months as the election nears, markets churn and assets melt. But the headlines that have made us dread picking up the newspaper mask a long-term problem that may shape the future of America more than John McCain's plan for Iraq, Barack Obama's health care ideas or Uncle Sam's heroic efforts to rescue the economy.
By most measures, the U.S. is in a decade-long decline in global technological competitiveness. The reasons are many and complex, but central among them is the country's retreat from long-term basic research in science and technology, coupled with a surge in R&D by countries such as China.
R&D has two parts, of course, and published figures showing a rise in "research and development" hide a troubling trend. Companies still spend billions annually on development, typically aimed at the next product cycle or two. But the kind of pure research that led to the invention of the transistor and the Internet has steadily declined as companies bow to the pressure for quarterly and annual results.
To take but one example: Bell Laboratories was founded in 1925 and went on to "help weave the technological fabric of modern society," as its Web site today rightly claims. Its "top 10 innovations," according to parent Lucent-Alcatel, include the transistor, data networking, cellular telephony, digital switching, communications satellites and the Unix operating system. Although Bell Labs continues to innovate in most of those areas, all of the top 10 had their origins in the 1970s or earlier.
In January 1982, Time magazine reported: "With 22,500 people on its payroll (3,000 of them Ph.D.s), 19,000 patents and an annual budget of $1.6 billion, Bell Laboratories is a mighty engine of research and development. It is possibly the finest, and certainly the largest, private operation of its kind anywhere."
But since then, Bell Labs, beginning with its breakup in 1984 in the AT&T divestiture and continuing through subsequent sales and restructurings by its parent companies, has become steadily more focused on advanced development rather than pure research. On Sept. 4 this year, The Star-Ledger of New Jersey reported that Bell Labs was disbanding a group of scientists doing basic research in areas such as material science and device physics. The paper reported that research director Gee Rittenhouse had explained that "the team was going to have a hard time integrating its research into product development."
Not only has industry cut back on research, it has taken much of it offshore, says David Farber, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University. That deprives U.S. scientists -- as well as non-U.S. scientists who were educated here and want to stay in the country -- of some of the best jobs, he says.
And the jobs of university researchers aren't so hot these days either, as professors and graduate students scramble for federal funds. "Faculty spend their careers writing proposals now. They don't get funded. The hit rates are low. People put in 20 proposals in a year," Farber says.
"Once you reduce university research, you are really mortgaging your future, because the way you train new scientists is by apprenticeships at graduate schools," he adds.
Where will the apprentices turn? "Eventually, we could all be hamburger flippers, or Wall Street brokers, if there are any left," Farber says.
The refocus from long-term research to shorter-term development in industry -- and Bell Labs is by no means the only example -- has been mirrored by a similar trend among the Washington agencies that fund science and technology, such as the Departments of Defense and Energy, the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. Federal funding for R&D has not declined overall -- it has, in fact, increased. But since the early 1990s, funding has been more and more focused on the short-term needs of government.
In particular, critics say, under the George W. Bush administration, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency -- which gave birth to the Internet, computer timesharing, computer graphics, LANs and much more -- has concentrated its research on short-term needs for warfare and homeland security. DARPA funding now tends to go to those who can promise measurable results in a year or two.
- 15 Non-Certified IT Skills Growing in Demand
- How 19 Tech Titans Target Healthcare
- Twitter Suffering From Growing Pains (and Facebook Comparisons)
- Agile Comes to Data Integration
- Slideshow: 7 security mistakes people make with their mobile device
- iOS vs. Android: Which is more secure?
- 11 sure signs you've been hacked
If you use ‘password,’ one the worst passwords, as your password, fail to keep antivirus protection updated and don’t bother to deploy security patches to close critical vulnerabilities, then maybe you should consider working for the cybersecurity-clueless federal government; you’d fit right in, according to Senator Tom Coburn's cybersecurity and critical infrastructure report.
- IT Certification Study Tips
- Register for this Computerworld Insider Study Tip guide and gain access to hundreds of premium content articles, cheat sheets, product reviews and more.
- Changing the Way Government Works: Four Technology Trends that Drive Down Costs and Increase Productivity
- This paper discusses four technology-based approaches to improving processes and increasing
productivity while driving down department and agency costs.
- Pay-as-you-Grow Data Protection: IBM Tivoli's Full-featured Data Protection Suite for Small to Medium Businesses
- IBM Tivoli Storage Manager Suite for Unified Recovery gives small and medium businesses the opportunity to start out with only the individual solutions...
- Streamline Data Protection with IBM Tivoli Storage Manager Operations Center
- IBM Tivoli Storage Manager (TSM) has been an industry-standard data protection solution for two decades. But, where most competitors focus exclusively on Backup...
- Simplify and Consolidate Data Protection for Better Business Results
- Learn about IBM® Tivoli® Storage Manager Operations Center, which provides advanced visualization, built-in analytics and integrated workflow automation features that leapfrog traditional backup...
- HP HAVEn: See the big picture in Big Data
- HP HAVEn is the industry's first comprehensive, scalable, open, and secure platform for Big Data. Enterprises are drowning in a sea of data... All Government IT White Papers
- Meg Whitman presents Unlocking IT with Big Data During this Web Event you will hear Meg Whitman, President and CEO, HP discuss HAVEn - the #1 Big Data platform, as well...
- The New Way to Work Knowledge Vault This Knowledge Vault focuses on how, in today's increasingly virtual world, it's more important than ever to engage deeply with employees, suppliers, partners,...
- Getting Ready for BlackBerry Enterprise Service 10.2 Find out how BlackBerry® Enterprise Service 10 helps organizations address the full spectrum of EMM challenges, while balancing the needs of both the...
- Containerization Options: How to Choose the Best DLP Solution for Your Organization This webcast outlines a framework for making the right choice when it comes to containerization approaches, along with the pros and cons of...
- Mobile Apps and Devices Slash Customer Cycle Time Consolidated Engineering Laboratories' field employees used to collect data on triplicate forms that were sometimes hard to read and difficult to manage. After...
- All Government IT Webcasts