Bell Labs: Over and out
In this week's New Scientist there is an article entitled Bell Labs: Over and out, which is about the decline and fall of Bell Labs. As the article puts it, Bell Labs was "formerly the world's premier industrial research laboratory". So, what went wrong?
The article says
What, then, was the key to its success? A large part of it was the way it encouraged its employees to strive for great ideas and tackle the toughest problems. The company trained technical managers to inspire staff, with ideas rather than meddle with details, and could afford to have multiple teams try different approaches at once. No doubt it also benefited from the security of working for a regulated monopoly insulated from the whims of the marketplace.
Eventually Bell's success ended too. After years of litigation, AT&T spun off its regional telephone service as seven separate companies in 1984, ending the decades of cosy monopoly. A dozen years later, it spun off most of Bell Labs along with its equipment division as Lucent Technologies, which initially prospered but then stumbled badly, shrinking from a peak of 16o,ooo employees to 30,5oo before merging with Alcatel ... It will be missed - it already is. The greatest loss is not so much Bell's vaunted basic research, but its unique ability to marshal teams of top technologists to transform bright ideas into effective technology.
Bell Labs was a laboratory that did great research because it employed top-notch researchers, it was protected from the marketplace, and because its managers could operate in a hands-off mode rather than micromanage everything, which allowed its researchers to get on with doing basic (read "long term") research. When these preconditions (i.e. protection from the marketplace, and hands-off management) are removed the structure of the organisation begins to change irreversibly, e.g. basic research ceases to be done.
I'm not so sure that I agree that "the greatest loss is not so much Bell's vaunted basic research", because basic research provides the source material for future technology. Even if you employ the best people in the world for turning the results of basic research into usable technology, you can get away without doing basic research for only so long before the cellar full of fine wines laid down in earlier years runs dry.
I particularly liked the phrase "transform bright ideas into effective technology" that was used in the article, because it sounds like the sort of "mission statement" that could be used by any organisation that wanted to plunder its cellar to convert its past basic research results into technology.
Because I do a lot of basic research myself, I have an interest in freedom to do basic research being granted to individuals who have a flair for this sort of activity (not many people, in my experience); I have commented on this in an earlier posting here. It seems that wherever I look conditions are changing in ways that are hostile to this civilisation-creating activity; see here for my earlier posting on this.