Bell Labs Drops Basic Research

An icon retreats:

Alcatel-Lucent, the parent company of Bell Labs, is pulling out of basic science, material physics and semiconductor research and will instead be focusing on more immediately marketable areas such as networking, high-speed electronics, wireless, nanotechnology and software.

A damn shame that is too, though truth be told Bell Labs has been in decline ever since the break-up of AT&T. But its research record is monumental and likely will never be matched by a single organization. And there’s likely a ripple effect up and down the research trade:

“Fundamental physics is absolutely crucial to computing,” says Mike Lubell, director of public affairs for the American Physical Society. “Say in the case of integrated circuits, there were many, many small steps that occurred along the way resulting from decades worth of work in matters of physics.”

Bell Labs was one of the last bastions of basic research within the corporate world, which over the past several decades has largely focused its R&D efforts on applied research — areas of study with more immediate prospects of paying off.

Without internally funded basic research, fundamental research has instead come to rely on academic and government-funded laboratories to do kind of long-term projects without immediate and obvious payback that Bell Labs used to historically do, says Lubell.

Research depends on linkages between different disciplines. The strength of Bell Labs was that basic and applied research lived under one roof. Universities can duplicate that, but that requires conscious effort on their part and the applied-research side of the house is often controversial if it’s funded by or linked to private industry. There’s always an English professor pissed off because he can’t get a grant to write another critique of Melville who will complain about it when others doing something more valuable can.

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