30
Aug
08

Who Killed Bell Labs?

William Shockley, John Bardeen and Walter Brattain invented the transistor in 1947. (Alcatel-Lucent/Bell Labs)

Wired has a story on the closing down of basic physics research at the former Bell Labs (now Alcatel – Lucent) in Murray Hill, NJ;

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.

The idea is to align the research work in the Lab closer to areas that the parent company is focusing on, says Peter Benedict, spokesperson for Bell Labs and Alcatel-Lucent Ventures.

“In the new innovation model, research needs to keep addressing the need of the mother company,” he says.

That view is shortsighted and may drastically curtail the Labs’ ability to come up with truly innovative discoveries, respond critics.

“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.

But isn’r research good? Isn’t it indispensable? What evil force has come along and removed all of the R&D dollars?;

Still for fundamental physics research there will be life after Bell Labs, though it will be dependent on the whims of the federal government.

Increasingly, long-term research is being carried out in universities and national laboratories with federal grants, says Lubell.

OH, THAT evil force.

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