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Bell Labs Kills Fundamental Physics Research

  1. Aug 29, 2008 #1
    I can't believe this is happening to Bell Labs!

    Six Nobel-prize worthy research came from that lab, including the invention of the silicon transistor, and the laser! It was a business decision by the parent company but, I think it's a very myopic business decision to abandon basic physics research now given how much fame and money has come from their discoveries. I hope the federal government takes this into account when they write the budget for basic physics research next time.
     
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  3. Aug 29, 2008 #2

    Moonbear

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    A lot of companies are short-sighted in this way, but don't expect the federal government to be any less short-sighted. This is part of the reason I've shifted my career from research-focused to teaching based (though I'm not in physics). The funding agencies have this same myopic point of view about needing to see the immediate translational/application utility of research and are ignoring the basic research that is the foundation for future innovation. I do expect this will eventually turn around again when innovation stagnates, but I don't expect it to happen soon enough.
     
  4. Aug 29, 2008 #3

    Astronuc

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    IBM and GE still have their corporate reasearch labs. Nevertheless, the loss of Bell lab's basic R&D is significant.

    I watched Westinghouse's R&D group take big hits in the 80's and then 90's. They were literally decimated.

    MB is right on the government. The national lab folks certainly want to do their basic research. On the other hand, that vision is not neceesarily shared by political appointees, or corporate managers, who see R&D as a hit on the bottomline.
     
  5. Aug 29, 2008 #4

    ZapperZ

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    This is not a surprise, really. Many people saw this coming when Bell Labs became Lucent.

    One needs to remember the situation during the glory days of Bell labs. AT&T had a monopoly on telephone service. They basically let Bell labs do whatever they please. While they had a mission and various projects, each individual also were given the support to pursue their own pet projects. So the freedom to pursue something out of curiosity and not care if such a project can actually translate into "profits" was the driving force for many innovations and made Bell Labs such a highly sought-after place to work. That's why they got some of the best people there.

    When AT&T broke up, and Lucent now has to survive in a business environment, Bell labs culture suddenly had to change, and the need to make a profit started to take over. When they got sold a couple of years ago, the end certainly was near. When I was at Brookhaven in early 2000, there were already talk about the US Nat'l Lab having to take up the slack in terms of basic research that Bell labs no longer were doing, which of course put in even MORE pressure on the Nat'l Lab that were themselves struggling with budget cutbacks in basic research. We were being asked to do more with less money!

    So when someone tells me that a govt. should be run like a business, I point to several companies that I know of, including Bell Labs/Lucent, where such a 'rule-of-thumb' simply does not work. Running something efficiently and productively has never been the sole monopoly of a business. It is how anything should be run, regardless of what it is. However, to force on short-term gain and profitability (which are two characteristics of a "business") on basic science research simply will not work. Many businesses have shown this to be true, and unfortunately, so has Bell Labs.

    Zz.
     
  6. Aug 29, 2008 #5
    I am so grossly enraged by this. Not just because I used bell labs and their unique enviroment as a argumentation tool in a discussion, but because they are almost unique in what they do. They are privately funded (or so I am told) and do fundamental research...

    I am so angry right now. Because I am so afraid I will live to see a new dark ages fall on man. Of course there must be a lot of things still to come to bring that about, but the change in politics the last ten years have not been encouraging.
     
  7. Aug 29, 2008 #6
    Don't worry, just practice up on your japanese. Those people are techo nuts. I was on an airplane to boston thinking about something and writing some notes on a pad. This couple the same age as me was sitting in the seats across the isle. They asked me in broken english 'oh is that math!?' They were so happy to see me doing math. Oddly nice, eh?

    So, there are still people around the world that value science.
     
  8. Aug 29, 2008 #7
    Cyrus: Thank you. Sometimes it's the little things that can make it or break it. It's like your favourite team just got a goal scored against them. Cutting back on bell labs is so stupid.

    But hey, the japanese at least try where most of the western world fails. In that you are correct. Let's hope some civilizations carry the beam of light into our future.

    I remember reading something that turbo-1 wrote a while ago. About a engineer that was a boss of some kind and he got the science people what they needed and really fought for their equipment so they could do their job. I hope I will be like that engineer someday. Of course economists do a great deal of things, but they always cut back on things that they don't have any experience in, like R&D, that is stupid to do for a company that wants to be competing with the best of them.
     
  9. Aug 29, 2008 #8

    Evo

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    Wow, when I worked for Bell in New Jersey, I worked closely with some of the guys in the lab on new products going out for beta testing.

    At Divestiture, Bell Labs was actually split in two, half of the lab went to what became Lucent (now Alcatel-Lucent) and the other half went to AT&T Communications which focused mainly on telecom projects. Sounds like that's the direction the Bell side is now going to concentrate on. This is really sad. The Quantum Cascade laser came from Bell labs, as did DSL technology, cell phones, solar cells, an amazing list.

    Bell Labs

    http://www.alcatel-lucent.com/wps/portal/BellLabs

    http://www.bell-labs.com/org/physicalsciences/projects/qcl/qcl.html

    ATT Labs

    http://www.research.att.com/index.cfm?portal=13&h=20
     
    Last edited: Aug 29, 2008
  10. Aug 29, 2008 #9

    Vanadium 50

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    There was also Bellcore, which was the RBOC's joint version of Bell Labs. It stopped doing fundamental research even earlier - maybe the 1990's. A lot of universities picked up some good faculty during that fire sale.
     
  11. Aug 29, 2008 #10

    f95toli

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    Yes, but it seems IBM is also cutting back on fundamental research. The research at their labs is becoming more and more "application oriented" (at least that is what people who work there tell me).

    But Moonbear is right, don't expect funding agencies to be any different.
    Even "applied science" is suffering. Unless you can show that your research might lead to a commercial product quite soon (say within 10 years or so) or at least to some sort of spin-off effect (preferably a company), it is very difficult to find money.
    The only way to get money for "blue sky" research is to convince the funding agencies that your research is important for some "hot topic", which at the moment is security (before that it was "nanoscience"). I have many colleagues that are able to work on fundamental problems only because they have managed to "sell" their research by claiming that it might have application in security such as detectors for airports security, quantum cryptography etc
     
  12. Aug 29, 2008 #11

    Moonbear

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    :biggrin: That's what will help us bounce back. This is not the first time the U.S. has gone through this sort of experience. When other countries start to pull ahead and their technology is advancing faster than ours because they're putting the money into the research when we aren't, then that good old American competitiveness seems to kick in and inspire spending on basic research again. It's just a slow cycle, and I'm at the wrong stage of my career to wait it out (I tried to wait it out for a bit, but it's not reversing soon enough for me). Someone just starting out grad school with maybe 10 years until they're going to be starting out on an independent research career might hit the timing right to be jumping in as this realization starts to hit and funding improves again.

    I'm keeping one foot in the door of research though, keeping up small projects and collaborations, while focusing on the teaching that is more rewarding.
     
  13. Aug 29, 2008 #12
    I think you guys got it wrong. Cutting funding to fundamental research is an obvious sign that we've pretty much got science figured out. Game over, we won.
     
  14. Aug 29, 2008 #13

    ZapperZ

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    Oh good. Please tell me the mechanism for superconductivity in the cuprate superconductors. This would be a type of basic physics research work at would be done at Bell Labs.

    Zz.
     
  15. Aug 29, 2008 #14
    I'm not aware of all details involved in this change, but I wouldn't call reducing research on semiconductors, and increasing research on nanotechnology being short-sighted yet.
     
  16. Aug 29, 2008 #15
    His handle is ekrim Zapper, not Britney Spears. Only she can answer such questions. :wink:
     
  17. Aug 29, 2008 #16

    ZapperZ

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    But those are what would bring them the most profit in the short run. While that was part of Bell Labs function, they never stopped from doing basic fundamental research that material science/condensed matter that simply had no immediate profit and application. The study of the physics of strongly-correlated electron system, for example, is simply the study of the physics on how an electronic system behave when strong electron-electron interaction is present, resulting in exotic many-body phenomena. While such research may lead eventually to the understanding of a certain class of material, the "application" of such a thing is never that transparent as simply wanting to understand the physics of it.

    Zz.
     
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