Veteran researchers: Cheapo US biz R&D risks innovation FAIL
Short term profit-seeking endangers 'crazy discovery capital'
Ethernet Summit The US has a problem: basic scientific research is underfunded, as is support for the work needed to translate basic research into marketable products. As a result, the US is in danger of falling behind its global technology competitors.
Bill Spencer, the former head of Xerox Research and the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), said that times have changed since his days managing corporate-sponsored research. "I think those research labs like Xerox PARC, IBM, Bell Labs, others are no longer in existence today," he said. "That source of new ideas and ways to make new companies does not exist today." As a result of this, he said, "the funding of new ideas is hurting."
Judy Estrin, formerly Cisco CTO and currently CEO of JLabs, said that government-sponsored research is also on the wane. "Government funding for basic science is not only down, but it is allocated in a different way. The way the [US Department of Defense] used to fund basic research is very different than what we have today; and [the National Science Foundation] is great, but it can't address all the problems that we have."
From Estrin's point of view, there is "not enough funding going into the really early crazy-discovery capital" that would fund research that may be risky, but which is the "seed corn" that leads to such major advances as, for example, Ethernet itself.
It was places such as Xerox PARC, Estrin said, where researchers were able to iterate an idea sufficiently long enough for it to be developed into a technology that could then be taken up by a startup that could obtain funding and bring it to market.
"We're missing a piece today in that innovation system that venture capitalists can't fund, and large corporations can't because of their focus on short-term profit," Estrin said.
Yogen Dalal, formerly at Xerox and more recently a partner in the global venture-capitalist firm the Mayfield Fund, agreed. "I think we all feel that the well is running dry in terms of where is the new discovery coming from," he said.
"You've got to have breakthroughs," Dalal said. "So who's going to fund this breakthrough? When I was at Xerox people weren't preoccupied with creating an idea and then going out and raising venture capital and making millions and millions of dollars. That came after the innovation had been created. They had free rein of doing what they wanted to do and make real breakthroughs occur."
Not that they're aren't a lot of scientists doing basic, breakthrough research. As Estrin put it, in a discussion of the rapidly intersecting fields of biology, engineering, and chemistry, "Every one of those researchers, every one of those scientists, are just starving for money."
Former Stanford Research Institute (SRI) researcher Bill English, who created the computer mouse along with Doug Englebart before moving on to PARC and then Sun Microsystems, expressed his opinion that government funding is highly contingent upon the individual who holds the governmental purse strings. Luckily, he said, there are still some good folks making good decisions.
Unfortunately, though, those people are all too rare. "I think today our government has devolved to the point where the question asked in any case of funding plays politically," he said, "and that's unfortunate. I don't know how we'll get past that."
It's a complex, multipartite conundrum, all agreed. The innovation cycle starts with basic research, moves on to the transformation of that research into technology through a risky iterative process, followed by the productization of that technology, then the release of those products into the market in a cost-effective and customer-supportive way.
"I think there are other countries that do good jobs at part of this," said Estrin. "In China they do a better job investing in science and research, but not the whole cycle."
She also cited Israel as one country that may not invest much in basic research, but is good at the rest of that cycle, "probably because of the strong investment [by] the military."
The US, Spencer said, excels in the final stage of that cycle. "I don't think there's any place in the world that is a better place to take an idea to the market than the United States is," he said. "We've got an active venture world. The ability to try and succeed or fail is unparalleled anywhere in the world."
Spencer also lauded the US university system. "If you look at the top universities worldwide, 18 out of 20 are in the United States, and the two that aren't, I'm not sure how they got there in England," he said – a sentiment that might not go down well with The Reg's UK readership.
Universities are carrying a heavy load these days, Estrin said, especially considering that the training provided by independent corporate-funded research centers has dwindled. "It's those graduate students and postgraduates that are working and learning the way of scientific thinking," she said. "And those people then go out into the world and make better innovators, better leaders, better problem solvers because they have gone through that process and spent time in a research arena."
"It's not just about the ideas and discoveries," Estrin said, "it's also about the people that carry those ideas out into the world."
The US is slipping from prominence in research, both basic and technology-related – and in response to a question from the audience regarding whether the US can benefit from research being done on a global scale, Estrin was less than sanguine.
"I don't believe it's true that we as an economy or an as innovation system and as a society can continue to thrive if we just decide to let someone else invest in the research part, and then we'll just take those ideas and do a good job bringing it to market," she said. "You can't separate it out that way."
And all panelists agreed: the US is currently losing its ability to support all elements of the multi-phase innovation cycle. ®