Tuesday, November 08, 2005

That was the American Century, this is something else-Part II

Just think, Albert, your theory could someday lead to Geraldo Rivera
—According to a group of technology researchers and scientists called the Marconi Society, the U.S. is falling behind the other countries in innovation. Partly, it is the reduction in funding by the federal government and industry; partly it is that other countries are getting much better. And the crunch seems to be centered on basic research.

Basic research is problematic politically. Even my mother, who knew zip about science, knew that intuitively. One day, she visited us in California and my wife, the cetacean biologist, gave her a private tour of her lab and a special demonstration with her dolphins. Carol studied echolocation, how dolphins use their sonar not only to locate themselves in their world, but to communicate with each other. At the end of the session, my mother was suitably impressed and then asked the question most basic scientists dread most: “Why do we want to know this?” Or, in other words, what’s it good for.

The answer, of course, is we don’t know yet. When Einstein produced his theory of electromagnetism, he couldn’t possibly have thought of a practical application and didn’t care. (In his case, one answer is television). Carol had no idea if what she found would be of use in the practical world and it hasn't. Not the point, she would say. And answers like that don’t sit well with politicians, who are far more interested in spending millions of dollars on bridges no one needs.

The reason for the lapse in innovation is precisely that problem. Basic research is a long-term investment with no guarantee anything useful will come of it—and in most cases, a pretty good chance that nothing will—except knowledge. Isaac Asimov once wrote that all knowledge is intrinsically good . He wasn’t in Congress or a funding agency.

The Marconi Society lamented all this, particularly in information technology.

"I think we are in trouble," said Leonard Kleinrock, professor of computer science at the University of California at Los Angeles and creator of the basic principle of packet switching. "Years ago, people took a long-range view to research. There was high-risk research with the potential for big payoffs. That's no longer the case."

Part of the problem is that in most of the 20th century, basic research was done in industrial labs, the most famous the late and lamented Bell Labs in New Jersey, where, among other things, the transistor was invented, a result of basic research begun 20 years earlier. Think of Xerox Parc and IBM’s Watson Labs. The results of their work were licensed cheaply to other firms. Those labs are now a ghost of their former selves, and in the case of Bell Labs, virtually non-existent. While some companies will join with academia for some research, it isn’t the same and it is not as productive.The federal government did a great deal, mostly with DARPA (the Internet for one), but they have cut back too. Deadlines have been shortened. Even DARPA no longer thinks long range.

One clear culprit, besides Congress, is Wall Street, which demands instant gratification and pressures companies not to invest in long-term projects. Defense and anti-terrorism are siphoning off billions.

Who’s doing the innovating now? Stay tuned. To be continued. For a good review of the Marconi session, see CNet.

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