Taken for Granted: Is a New Model Needed for Breakthrough Science?


Meeting today's biggest challenges--climate change and energy independence, for example--will take major scientific breakthroughs. To accomplish them, the nation needs research organizations that are far more mission-focused and collaborative than the current principal investigator (PI)–centered model of academic research. That's the opinion of physicist Eric Isaacs, the new director of the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois.

Speaking to reporters at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on 15 September, Isaacs echoed a theme enunciated in congressional testimony and elsewhere by Energy Secretary Steven Chu, who has presented a detailed proposal for eight mission-oriented research centers that he calls "innovation hubs." Today's great tasks are "as important as the Manhattan Project or getting a man to the moon," said Isaacs, citing two technical triumphs achieved at high speed by large, goal-driven organizations.

The goal is to keep our scientists and engineers. … People can have a whole career here.

--Matthew Howard

The PI-centric model, with its dependence on individual researchers putting forth ideas in hopes of winning short-term funding, is too time-consuming, diffuse, and uncertain to produce the bold strategic advances crucial to maintaining the nation's scientific and economic competitiveness, Isaacs insisted. The massive projects needed now--such as devising a model of climate change detailed enough to be truly predictive or batteries efficient enough to compete with gasoline--cannot wait or depend on chancy funding, he believes.He added that a strong national commitment to goal-centered basic science could help solve other important problems by drawing America's talented young people into scientific work and providing them with better opportunities for aspiring researchers to build careers with a realistic chance of making both a significant scientific contribution and a decent living.

Congress to date has been decidedly cool toward Chu's proposal--a potentially missed opportunity not only for the prospect of energy independence but also for the prospects of countless young scientists. And this new (or, as we'll shortly see, the long-tested and highly successful) model that Chu proposes is applicable not only to energy but also to many other problems facing society.

The current academic pyramid model, with its self-replicating professors dependent on short-term grants and relatively cheap student and postdoc labor, is, like the nation's dependence on fossil fuel, highly wasteful, damaging, and ultimately unsustainable. Chu's "hubs" could thus also serve as an influential demonstration of an important organizational principle.

Reviving a tradition?

headshot of Steven Chu

Steven Chu

Credit: Roy Kaltschmidt, Lawrence Berkeley Nat'l. Lab

The hubs, Chu told the Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development of the Senate Appropriations Committee in May, would consist of "multidisciplinary, highly collaborative teams ideally working under one roof to solve priority technology challenges." They would "support cross-disciplinary research and development focused on the barriers to transforming energy technologies into commercially deployable materials, devices, and systems." They would be modeled on the former Bell Laboratories, the legendary research center run for decades by the American Telephone and Telegraph Company and its manufacturing arm, Western Electric. In its heyday, Bell Labs was funded by a fixed portion of the earnings from the nationwide telephone service, which until 1984 was a regulated monopoly.

Nor was the colossus of Murray Hill, New Jersey, the only "really great" mission-focused industrial organization doing groundbreaking research in former days, Isaacs said. Owned by the broadcasting and manufacturing giant Radio Corporation of America, RCA Laboratories in Princeton, New Jersey, for example, concentrated on radio and television. Xerox Palo Alto Research Center in California focused on information technology. In their glory days, these outfits pioneered a staggering series of epoch-making advances: the transistor, cell phones, faxes, the computer mouse, color television, the graphical computer interface, radar, and much more.

Such mission-focused labs led to major technical and scientific strides in fields such as nuclear power, advanced materials, and supercomputing that came out of the atom bomb and space programs. They also accounted for much of the innovation that undergirded the unparalleled prosperity and technical supremacy of post-World War II America. Beyond inventions that revolutionized daily life, Bell Lab scientists made fundamental discoveries--such as the wave nature of matter and the microwave background radiation from the big bang--earning six Nobel Prizes including the one shared in 1997 by Secretary Chu for a method of trapping atoms with lasers.

Investing for the long term

Eric Isaacs

Eric Isaacs

Credit: Argonne National Lab

Today, noted Isaacs, a former Bell Labs researcher, those stellar institutions are no more. Industry "does not have the heart"--or the monopoly profits--to invest in work with the same kind of "long-term payoff" as, say, the transistor, invented in 1947 by a trio of Bell Labs researchers. Although the first transistor radios appeared in the mid-1950s, the invention's full commercial potential did not begin to be realized until the 1970s and '80s.

In today's much less regulated and much more globalized economy, only 4% of U.S. corporate scientific investment goes to basic research, with 20% going to applied research and 76% to development, Isaacs said. Although "not unreasonable" from a corporate standpoint, this pattern "has taken a toll" on the nation's investment in innovation, he said.

The foundations of the industrial labs' greatness, Isaacs continued, were "sustained funding," long-term investment toward large and important goals, and an overriding sense of mission associated with achievement in a particular area of endeavor. At least as important was the appeal to "excellent young people" attracted by the excitement and glamour of cutting-edge work and kept in their jobs by opportunities to build careers providing secure, upper-middle class lifestyles.

Another Nobel for Bell

Just 4 days after this article went to press, another Nobel prize--or half of one--was awarded to work done at Bell Labs. To read more, see our blog entry on the subject.

Great science happened because "over-the-top, passionate people" poured their talents into big problems without having to worry about competing for individual, short-term money. The labs were "block-funded," and staffers could work across fields and projects without fearing for their future security. "I saw the power of truly collaborative science like this first hand during my time at Bell Laboratories," Chu told the senators. What's needed to solve the energy problem, he continued, is "the modern version of Bell Labs"--specifically, his eight hubs, or "Bell Lablets"--devoted to energy. They would "support cross-disciplinary research and development focused on the barriers to transforming energy technologies into commercially deployable materials, devices, and systems [and] advance highly promising areas of energy science and technology from their early stages of research to the point that the risk level will be low enough for industry to deploy them into the marketplace."

To foster the "unique and indispensable scientific collaboration" he foresees, the hubs "must be backed by a meaningful and sustained investment," Chu said. "The intent is to provide a funding stream that's more dependable than today's standard funding mechanisms, but renewal would not be automatic. To receive renewed funding after 5 years, hubs will be expected to be delivering exceptional scientific progress," Chu said. But, he predicted, "these investments will pay for themselves many times over, ensuring American leadership and American competitiveness," just like investment in the now-lost goal-focused labs of yesteryear.

Needed: Congressional action

Only the government now has the ability to make that kind of investment in scientific excellence, Isaacs said in his talk, because today's "different conditions" make it "very difficult to reconstruct Bell Labs." But, he tells Science Careers, the Energy Department's national labs already incorporate elements of the model. Funded by the government and run by private entities such as universities or companies, they focus on particular problems and emphasize collaboration among scientists and engineers to find solutions. Researchers need not spend their time writing grant proposals or depend primarily on the cheap labor of aspiring scientists who will soon be looking to launch their own careers. Everyone is expected to perform at a high level, but no one endures a single, make-or-break tenure decision. Instead of success in running the independent, mom-and-pop operations so important at universities, a major element in evaluations is a scientist's ability to collaborate. The pay scale, adds Matthew Howard, Argonne's director of communications and public affairs, is closer to industry than to academe, and scientists stay an average of about 15 years. "The goal is to keep our scientists and engineers. … People can have a whole career here."

Despite all of these apparent pluses, the prospects for Chu getting a go-ahead for eight--or any--of his proposed "Bell Lablets" are uncertain. In a time of very tight funding, any money going to a new initiative probably has to come from an old one, an issue beginning to get attention across many scientific fields. But, as history shows, goal-oriented research organizations, whether run by government or industry, can produce both brilliant science and attractive career opportunities.

Whether the nation and its young scientists get to try out the advantages of excellent goal-oriented research institutions is up to Congress. It was Congress that created the conditions in which the legendary labs flourished. It can, if it wishes--and if Chu, who is relatively new to Washington, presses his plan skillfully--do so again.

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