02 March 2011

Why have industries pulled out of basic research?

This USA Today article on brewing fights over American federal funding for research mentions something that’s puzzled me for a long time.

Over the past few decades, industry has moved far from the halcyon days of Bell Labs, inventor of the transistor, when private firms pursued basic research.

Unfortunately, that little quote does a rather big disservice to Bell Labs. Bell Labs had a key role not just in developing the transistor, but other critical inventions like the laser, solar cells, cell phones, light emitting diodes, and, for the neuroscientists in the crow, fMRI.

Bell Labs is still operating, but much smaller than it used to be, and it isn’t doing basic physics research any more.

But with such a track record of acclaim and patents and, one assumes, profit in the long haul... why haven’t many more companies dug in and invested in basic research? And what would it take to get companies to create places where basic, curiosity-driven research could be done?

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