Via Faithful Reader A.A. comes news that Bell Labs will soon officially shutter its fundamental physics research lab.
This isn’t quite as huge a deal as it might sound – it’s made clear in the article that, in fact, Alcatel-Lucent (the scientific company which now runs the Labs) only had 4 researchers left in fundamental physics, so it’s more symbolic than fundamentally (pardon the pun) important.
However, it is quite symbolic in the sense that, across all fields of science, government funding for so-called ‘basic research’ has been slowly drying up in the last 20 years, while corporate sources have basically disappeared. Basic, or fundamental, research is looking at the deep, inner questions of science. What is an atom? How do chemical reactions happen? How old is the universe? What, if anything, are quarks made of? By definition, basic research is not done with a specific product or outcome in mind.
However, many, many products which we now use on a minute-by-minute basis, including the maser (precursor to the laser that runs your DVD player), the transistor, which is the basis behind the computer you are using at this very moment, and the discovery of cosmic background radiation, commonly held to be proof of the Big Bang theory, were discoveries that came from Bell Labs, a corporate-funded basic research institute.
One of the largest drawbacks, to the scientific community at large, to the fracturing the scientific industrial landscape is that only very large companies, with significant profit margins, can afford to partake in basic research. Again, by definition, basic research is not intended to be profitable. And, in today’s economy, when smaller and more nimble companies are often running circles around the larger, more staid ones, one of the first areas to get its budget cut is basic research, since this can be done without upsetting the quarterly bottom line.
Which does make companies more profitable, on a day-to-day basis, but also makes them much less likely to have the sorts of giant, game-changing breakthroughs which are immensely profitable to the company in the long-term, and also serve to better the state of mankind.
I don’t really have a great solution to this, although, being a good liberal, my likely answer is ‘more government spending’ and, indeed, I am in favor of more government spending to fund basic scientific research, the kind which usually results in nothing much happening but, every once in a while, gives us a result so beautiful, or elegant, or practical that it returns the value on the investment by a hundredfold or more.