On April 30, 2015, Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy hosted a Civic Scientist Lecture on Restoring the Foundation: Reviving the U.S. Science, Engineering and Technology Enterprise, featuring Norman R. Augustine (Cochair of the Academy’s Restoring the Foundation report; retired Chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin Corporation; and former Under Secretary of the United States Army) and Steven Chu (William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of Physics and Professor of Molecular and Cellular Physiology at Stanford University; and former U.S. Secretary of Energy). Neal Lane (Cochair of the Academy’s Restoring the Foundation report; and Senior Fellow in Science and Technology Policy at Rice University) moderated the discussion. The program also included a welcome from Academy President Jonathan F. Fanton. The following is an edited transcript of the discussion.
Neal Lane is Senior Fellow in Science and Technology Policy at the Baker Institute for Public Policy, Malcolm Gillis University Professor Emeritus, and Professor of Physics and Astronomy Emeritus at Rice University. He is former Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, former Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and former Director of the National Science Foundation. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy in 1995 and serves as Cochair of the Academy’s Restoring the Foundation report.
Welcome to Rice University and to Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy and today’s Civic Scientist Lecture. This evening we will hear from two of the nation’s best-known and most distinguished civic scientists, Steven Chu and Norman Augustine.
This evening’s lecture is part of the Baker Institute’s Civic Scientist Program, one of the institute’s Science and Technology Policy initiatives, which highlights outstanding scientists and engineers and technical professionals who, in addition to making significant contributions in their fields, also devote a portion of their careers to public service, either by serving in government or in other ways engaging the public and policy-makers on the important role of science, engineering, and technology in American society. A goal of our program is to encourage others to follow the example of our civic scientists and more generally to promote a dialogue to help bridge what seems to still be a gap in our society between science and rational public policy-making.
We are endeavoring to spread the word about the link between science and technology and the public good through both this lecture series and our K – 12 school outreach program, which is coordinated with Rice University’s larger outreach effort. Last year we sent dozens of scientists and engineers, including both of today’s speakers, to local middle and high schools, reaching more than 1,500 students.
The Civic Scientist Program would not be possible without the generous support of our sponsors. The program has received enthusiastic support from Rice, specifically from the Brown School of Engineering, the Wiess School of Natural Sciences, and the Department of Physics and Astronomy – all of which are co-organizers for tonight’s event. I want to give special thanks to Benjamin and Winifer Cheng for their considerable support of the program and to Shell Oil Company for supporting this lecture series, which is part of the Baker Institute Shell Distinguished Lecture Series. In addition, this special event is being jointly sponsored by the Baker Institute Center for Energy Studies, its Science and Technology Program, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Last September the Academy published a report entitled Restoring the Foundation: The Vital Role of Research in Preserving the American Dream. The report is a call to the public, business leaders, community leaders, and policy-makers at all levels to recognize that the discoveries that come out of basic research in all fields of science, engineering, and medicine are vital to the development of new knowledge, new innovative technologies, new diagnostics and cures, new industries, new jobs, and the economy as a whole.
Our first speaker this evening is a one-of-a-kind aeronautical engineer, Norman Augustine. He is the author of several books, including a funny book on management called Augustine’s Laws. Born in Colorado, he went to Princeton, where he received a degree in aeronautical engineering and later served on the faculty there as a lecturer with the rank of professor. He enjoyed a long, distinguished career in the aerospace industry, capping it off as President, CEO, and Chairman of Lockheed Martin. In the 1970s, Mr. Augustine served in the federal government as Under Secretary – and, at one point, acting Secretary – of the Army.
Throughout his career he has advised universities, companies, government agencies, the White House, Congress, and other organizations. He served on the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology for all sixteen years of the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. He has chaired influential blue-ribbon advisory committees on topics as varied as energy, national domestic security, the future of the U.S. space program, and the U.S. Antarctic program. I am personally grateful to Norm for helping me convince Congress to fund a new South Pole research station when I was director of the National Science Foundation. Norm also led the National Research Council study Rising above the Gathering Storm, which warned of the nation’s loss of leadership in science, technology, and innovation and has been one of the National Academy of Sciences’ most influential reports.
Norm has a long list of honors, including election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and the National Academy of Engineering, where he served as chairman. In 1997, he received the National Medal of Technology.
I have had the pleasure of cochairing with Norm the American Academy of Arts and Sciences Study Committee that created the Restoring the Foundation report you will hear about this evening, and I personally benefitted from his wisdom, intelligence, political savvy, and humor. We are delighted to have Norm with us today.
Norman R. Augustine
Norman R. Augustine is retired Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Lockheed Martin Corporation. He is also former Under Secretary of the U.S. Army. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy in 1992 and serves as Cochair of the Academy’s Restoring the Foundation report.
We started work on Restoring the Foundation by talking about the American Dream, which has inspired so many people not only in America but throughout the world. I myself have lived the American Dream. Nobody in my family ever had the opportunity to go to college. Only one had gone to high school. My wife has lived the American Dream to a far greater extent. She came to America on a boat from Scandinavia alone when she was nineteen years old with two suitcases, $50, and a job she found in the New York Times want ads. The concern of the Academy committee was that today the American Dream is very brittle and in existential danger. That was what brought many of us together to work on this study.
Almost a decade earlier, I had worked on the Gathering Storm study conducted by the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine. Among the twenty recommendations we made, the top one had to do with education, the second had to do with research – despite this being a study not of research and education but of America’s economic competitiveness.
When we began work on Restoring the Foundation, we were particularly interested in research, thanks in part to the Gathering Storm report. We ended up focusing on basic research, because basic research is probably the most endangered form of research, yet is arguably the most important.
Basic research is endangered because it is the most difficult form of research to defend outside of the research community itself. I have tried mightily many times, particularly on Capitol Hill. The trouble is that even those performing purely curiosity-driven research cannot say what benefit will be derived from their efforts.
Another difficulty in trying to defend such research is that the average person frequently doesn’t connect his or her personal well-being with what scientists in white robes are doing in the back of some laboratory. Why is this important to me, they ask? The fact, of course, is that it is terribly important, but much of the public doesn’t seem to realize that.
I recall one congressional hearing where a major argument took place about research being conducted on the color and chemistry of butterfly wings, which some members thought was a waste of money. Well, out of that study unexpectedly came an ingredient used in the treatment of cancer.
At another hearing I sat beside a witness who had been studying the behavior of Weddell seals under the ice pack in Antarctica. The question was asked about this research, “What does that have to do with any taxpayer?” According to the witness’s testimony, what they learned during that research project is now helping save the lives of thousands of children undergoing respiratory surgery.
Who else should care about the well-being and the health of research in America? Well, almost anyone who wants to have a job. Surveys conducted around the world asking what is the most important factor in determining your well-being overwhelmingly find the answer is “to have a good job.” And what does it take to create jobs? The first step is to grow the gross domestic product. To increase the number of jobs in America by one percentage point, you have to add about 1.7 percentage points to the GDP. But where does that latter growth come from? Well, numerous studies, one of which led to a Nobel Prize, show that up to 87 percent of GDP growth in this country comes from advances in just two closely related disciplines: science and technology. Yet only 5 percent of the workforce in America are scientists or engineers! The important thing is that these individuals create a disproportionate number of jobs compared to the other 95 percent. By my calculations, the multiplier for engineers in job creation is almost ten to one.
Who else might care about the health of the research enterprise? Without the building blocks that scientists provide from basic research, engineers could not address such problems as providing clean, sustainable energy; preserving the environment; providing national security; and much more. That would be like asking engineers to build a wall without providing bricks.
Then there are, of course, those of us in this room who would not be alive today were it not for the accomplishments of the research enterprise. When my parents were born, the life expectancy in America was forty-seven years. When they passed on, it was seventy-nine years. Much of that gain can be attributed to work that took place in research laboratories in universities, in government and elsewhere. A large part of the gain was of course the result of reductions in infant mortality, but that made it no less important to people like my sister, who died shortly after she was born.
Then there are those of us who care about today’s lifestyle. Without basic research we wouldn’t have computers or global positioning systems or global communications or TVs or weather satellites to warn of storms. Consider Apple, which deserves great credit for the iPod, the iPad, and the iPhone. But it wasn’t Apple that made these products possible. The things Apple produces today that create jobs for so many people and add to one’s lifestyle were made possible by scientists working decades ago in fields such as solid-state physics and quantum mechanics. Presumably they had no inkling of the profound impact their work would have on society. Further back in time, it is worthy of note that Roentgen did not have a contract to produce an X-ray machine – and Flemming was not working on a project to produce antibiotics.
Finally, how about those among us who care about national security and homeland security? The United States today has the eighth-largest military force in the world in terms of overall personnel count. Every Secretary of Defense I have known has said that a major part of the margin of victory possessed by our military forces must be attributed to advancements in science and technology.
So if research and technology are so important, how are we doing in this country at supporting them? One of the measures used in the Academy’s report is the percentage of GDP devoted to research, sometimes referred to as research intensity. A couple of decades ago, the United States ranked first in this measure. Today we are seventh. In the case of research and development, we have fallen from first to tenth place. Even an organization as highly regarded by the public as the National Institutes of Health has seen its budget cut by 22 percent in real dollars the last few years, offsetting an earlier effort to increase its resources.
The enabling question is who should fund research.
Our universities, particularly our great state universities, perform much of the research that is accomplished, so perhaps they should provide most of the funding. But our public colleges and universities are also responsible for educating 70 percent of our young people and are in no position today to fund research while states disinvest in higher education and tuition soars. The states now provide a smaller percentage of the operating budgets of our state universities than at any time in the last quarter century, and the percentage has been declining steadily.
Philanthropy is of course important, but the aggregate amount tends to be relatively small and tends to be directed toward specific areas of personal interest to the philanthropist.
What about industry, which is a major beneficiary of basic research? The U.S. government used to fund two-thirds of the R&D conducted in this country while industry funded most of the other one-third. As government reduced its investment over the years, that ratio has flipped.
The problem is that industry mostly funds “D” and not “R.” And while I don’t agree that this is a sound long-term strategy, industry does have a very good reason for doing what it does: most of today’s shareholders own a given company’s stock for an average of four months, and they have little interest in seeing their money spent on things that won’t have an impact for another ten years. In contrast, when I first entered the business world the retention period was eight years.
That leaves the federal government as the funder of last resort for research. So how is the federal government doing in this regard today? Well, the U.S. government ranks twenty-ninth in the world in the fraction of research conducted within the country that is funded by the government.
So what can we do? Answering that question takes up the main part of the Academy’s report. The first and broadest recommendation has to do with, as you might expect, the funding of basic research. Much of the research that American industry has built on to create jobs during the last two decades was performed in the 1970s and 1980s. During the period spanning from 1975 to 1992, basic research grew steadily at 4.4 percent per year, in real dollars. Despite this being a time of many challenges to the nation, we remained committed to funding basic research. But since 1992, our investment in R&D as a percentage of GDP has flat-lined.
Many presidents have said the goal of America should be to spend 3 percent of the GDP on R&D. Today it is around 2.7 percent. The Academy’s report recommends that we move toward 3.3 percent, that we spend a tenth of that on basic research, and that we do this by the year 2032.
Why 2032? There are two reasons. One is that the youth born today will begin college in 2032. The other is that if we increase our spending at the rate recommended by the Academy – namely, 4 percent per year, as was the case during America’s economic ascent – we will, by 2032, get our R&D funding to where it would have been had we not flat-lined in 1992.
The bad news is that to achieve the increase we recommend we will have to find money to support a 75 percent increase in basic research over the next seventeen years. The good news is that the amount we currently spend on basic research is so de minimis in the grand scale of federal budgets that to do so would require an increase of only 0.15 percent of the GDP.
The Academy’s report makes a number of other recommendations. One is that we reaffirm the importance of peer review in determining what research should be conducted. Determining which specific research projects are selected for funding should not be prescribed by policies enacted by the U.S. Congress.
Another recommendation is that we adopt a five-year rolling capital budget for basic research in order to give at least some idea of where we are headed in the long term and to prevent the sort of uncertainty that comes from not knowing whether the budget will go up or go down from one year to the next. Pulling up the roots once a year to see if the flowers are growing is generally not a constructive practice. I know of no successful company in this country that doesn’t have a capital budget.
We recommend streamlining the proposal process for determining what grants are awarded by the government agencies that oversee research funding. Today, research proposals to government agencies have about a 20 percent overall chance of being accepted, and a proposer will often have to wait a year to find out whether a specific proposal will in fact be funded.
The Academy’s study also proposed practices that should make for better cooperation between industry, government, and academia. In most countries these institutions work in harmony, but in America we build barriers between them, such as intellectual property rules, regulatory policies, and well-meaning conflict-of-interest rules that lead to an adversarial relationship.
We propose that the research and development tax credit be made permanent. Congress renews it each year and has been doing so for over fifteen years, but industry can’t plan on it, so it doesn’t make full use of it.
Then there’s the matter of H1B visas. America’s science and engineering enterprise would barely function today without foreign-born individuals who come to this country, receive their education here, and stay here. But our immigration laws do everything they can to keep these people out or to drive them back out once they receive their education. That, too, is counterproductive.
Generally the reaction to recommendations like these – especially when made at a congressional hearing – is that we don’t have enough money. But, frankly, that is not true. The issue is not money. The issue is priority.
Take the NIH. The average American spends twenty-five cents a day to fund the NIH. Yet each year the average American spends about seven times that amount on store-bought alcoholic beverages, legal tobacco products, and Halloween costumes for dogs. We could afford more for research; we simply need to ask what is important to us. That is what the funding question boils down to.
And that brings us back to the American Dream, which depends on having good jobs; and the secret to good jobs is education. A few years ago I was testifying before Congress on these very subjects, and one of the members became impatient with me and said, “Mr. Augustine, don’t you understand that this country has a funding problem?” Probably more succinctly than judiciously I replied, “Senator, I do realize that we have a budget problem. But I was trained as an aeronautical engineer, and during my career I worked on many airplanes that during their development program were too heavy to fly, and never once did we solve the problem by taking off an engine.”
The engines that drive our nation are education, research, and technology. Put simply, that is the message we need to carry to our nation’s leaders; I hope you will help.
Our second speaker this evening is Steven Chu. He is a distinguished scientist, a Nobel laureate in physics, who took time out to serve in the Obama administration as the twelfth Secretary of Energy from 2009 to 2013. He was the first Nobel laureate to serve on a U.S. President’s cabinet. Dr. Chu shared the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics for work he carried out while at Bell Labs on laser cooling and trapping of atoms, a technique that allows scientists to study individual atoms with remarkable accuracy and that has many applications, including atomic clocks, which are now the standard for time and frequency. Technologies such as GPS or the Internet would not be possible without them.
Dr. Chu was born in St. Louis and studied at the University of Rochester and then the University of California, Berkeley, where he received his Ph.D. He has held faculty positions at Stanford and at the University of California, Berkeley, where he served as director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which became a center for biofuels and solar energy research. In this brief introduction, I cannot adequately convey the impact Steve Chu had as Secretary of Energy, so I’m just going to use a brief quote from the MIT Technology Review of February 9, 2015: “Steven Chu broke the mold. In his four years of service, he made the Department of Energy more innovative, launching the Advanced Research Project Agency for Energy, ARPA-E, to support projects that are not yet ready for private investment. He also created innovation hubs to bring people from different disciplines together on energy problems, and he rejuvenated funding for solar research.” And, of course, he did many other things. Along the way, he was also a key figure in the federal response to the April 20, 2010, Deepwater Horizon accident, making sure that decisions about the response and cleanup were informed by science.
After stepping down as Secretary of Energy in 2013, Dr. Chu returned to Stanford University, where he is continuing his pathbreaking physics research, with a focus on biology, biomedicine, new energy technologies, and many other important applications. Dr. Chu has a long list of honors beyond the Nobel Prize, including election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and the National Academy of Sciences; and election to several foreign honorary organizations, including the Royal Society. Dr. Chu is a member of the American Academy Study Committee that wrote the Restoring the Foundation report.
Steven Chu is William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of Physics and Professor of Molecular and Cellular Physiology at Stanford University. He is former U.S. Secretary of Energy and former Director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy in 1992.
The way the public envisions research – a lone, gifted person working in seclusion and coming up with brilliant ideas – is not how it usually happens. Research typically is done with teamwork, a lot of joint stimulation. At times in the history of science, institutions remained at the forefront of knowledge creation for several generations of scientists. Some of these led to what we might call golden moments in science. Two examples that stand out are the Medical Research Council’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology or LMB (an offshoot of the Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge) and AT&T Bell Laboratories.
Among the scientists who have worked at the relatively small Laboratory of Molecular Biology over the years, thirteen have been awarded Nobel Prizes, as have at least seven postdocs and scientists who trained there. At the LMB, structural molecular biology was developed that led to our ability to determine the atomic structure of proteins. Perhaps the most famous discovery made by scientists who worked at this legendary laboratory is the structure of DNA.
Bell Labs also had an extraordinary number of scientists and engineers who were awarded Nobel Prizes, fifteen in all. What is remarkable about this track record is that Bell Labs liked to hire young scientists instead of established stars. The vast majority were freshly minted Ph.D.s or young scientists who had just completed a postdoctoral position.
The wealth of scientific discoveries and engineering marvels that came out of Bell Labs was remarkable. Bell Labs invented the negative feedback electronic amplifier needed for long-distance transmission. Their engineers and mathematicians defined the very concept of “information,” proved the fundamental limits of information transfer, proved that perfect information transfer is possible even in the presence of noise and loss of data, and established the theoretical limit to any error correcting scheme. They developed a telephone network based on electronic rather than mechanical switches, invented the transistor that became the basis of computer switching, the laser, the silicon solar photovoltaic cell, the CCD (charged coupled device) that replaced film cameras, and functional magnetic resonance imaging that has revolutionized behavioral psychology and neuroscience. They also invented the underlying programming language used by Apple and Google, by cell phone technology, by undersea transatlantic transmission, and by satellite communications.
Many of these inventions grew out of “basic research” at Bell Labs, but what was basic research and how was it incorporated in an industrial laboratory? As an example, consider Clinton Davisson, who came to Bell Labs during World War I to work on vacuum tubes for the military. He was a young scientist going places, an instructor at Princeton who could easily have had an academic career in one of the best universities, but he liked the atmosphere at Bell Labs, and Bell Labs liked him. They recognized that Davisson was brilliant, and they gave him freedom to explore, so he stayed.
Beginning in the early 1920s, Davisson and his assistant Lester Germer were investigating the angular dependence of electrons in a vacuum tube scattering from a nickel plate. They knew about a development in a new theory called quantum mechanics that suggested that particles, like electrons or atoms, could act as waves. They constructed a vacuum tube containing a collimated and variable energy electron source, an annealed nickel target, and an electron detector that could be rotated with respect to the surface. In 1927, they reported that the electrons scattering from the surface were described by wave diffraction used to describe X-ray scattering from periodic crystals. This seminal experiment confirmed this fundamental property of the quantum nature of matter. A decade later, Davisson became the first Bell Labs scientist to be awarded a Nobel Prize.
A number of aspiring scientists were drawn to Bell Labs to work with the great man. One of these people was a young physicist named Bill Shockley. Shortly after Shockley joined Bell Labs in 1936, he recalls a conversation with the director of AT&T Research, Mervin Kelly. As Shockley writes in his Nobel lecture,
Upon my arrival I was assigned by Dr. M. J. Kelly to an indoctrination program in vacuum tubes. In the course of this program Dr. Kelly spoke to me of his idea of doing all telephone switching electronically instead of with metal contacts. Although I did not choose to continue work on vacuum tubes and was given freedom to pursue basic research problems in solid-state physics, Dr. Kelly’s discussion left me continually alert for possible applications of solid-state effects in telephone switching problems.
The vision of the management at Bell Labs and a team of brilliant scientists led to the invention of the transistor in 1949. Apart from the time Shockley spent working on radar during World War II, he devoted most of his time working on theoretical studies in solid state physics. In 1945, Kelly formed the Solid State Group with Shockley as the leader. John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, and Bill Shockley were awarded another Nobel Prize in 1956. For the next half century, Bell Labs remained a leader in semiconductor physics, semiconductor materials science, and devices based on semiconductors.
The first transistor was something only a mother could love; it is ugly and ungainly, but Bell Labs knew it was the secret to miniature, low-power electronics that would revolutionize the world. And they were right. The practical applications have been immense, but it all came out of the basic research that developed quantum mechanics in the 1920s. The researchers who invented quantum mechanics never dreamed that a theory developed to explain the spectra of light from atoms would lead to the transistor and the laser.
How did LMB and Bell Labs remain at the pinnacle of science for a half a century? Was the magic in the water they drank? Or can we understand and replicate these institutions today? I have thought a lot about this over the past twenty years, and I have concluded that we can draw several lessons.
Lesson one. Great people try to hire people better than they are, people who have the potential to surpass them. They don’t hire people to be assistants – they seek protégés. The very best people aren’t insecure – or at least they are less insecure. They want the very best people around them. Second-tier people are more drawn to people who think and act like them. Radical thinkers carry more risk and are, by definition, not widely recognized. In short, A’s hire A’s, and B’s hire C’s. I see this pattern in industry, in government, and in academia.
Another common denominator was that LMB and Bell Labs had very flat management structures. In the research departments of Bell Labs with which I was familiar, managers who oversaw up to several hundred research employees were expected to be engaged in active research with their own brains, and in the case of experimentalists, their own brains and hands.
Sydney Brenner, a Nobel laureate who worked at LMB for many years, said about the laboratory, “We attracted the best. Our job was to create people better than ourselves.” At LMB, especially in the early days, they felt a collective mission. When I talked to Sydney of those early days, he told me, “Everybody worked in the lab. Flies, rats, physicists, chemists – were all going in the same direction.” Perhaps that was an exaggeration. Flies tend to be a bit more erratic. But the excitement of the research at LMB – the understanding of biology down to the molecular level as it was unfolding – was totally infectious.
Lesson two. After hiring the very best people, let them spread their wings and let them find their way. The management at Bell Labs supplied its scientists with funding, shielded them from extraneous bureaucracy, and urged them not to be satisfied by merely doing “good science.” When I started there, my department head told me to spend my first six months in the library and to talk to people before deciding what to do. A year later, during my first performance review, he chided me to be content with nothing less than starting a new field. I was a cheeky kid at that time and said, “I would love to start a new field. Can you give me a hint as to which field I should start?”
Lesson three. People stimulate each other; they get people to talk in informal settings. When I became a department head at Bell Labs, my job was to help scientists in my group flourish. I would say, “Oh, you’re working on this. You should talk to so-and-so over here. They may be able to help you. You should talk to them to find out what they’re doing.” The Bell Labs culture promoted communication and communal brainstorming.
Most laboratories hold seminars where the scientists report on their work, but often they are attended only by the scientists’ own group or those in their immediate specialty. At LMB, Crick instituted an annual week-long set of seminars known as “Crick Week,” which would be attended by all members of the laboratory.
At Bell Labs, lunch was the common scientific meeting ground. Even if you weren’t hungry, you would go down at midday for an hour and sometimes longer. We would sit at big round tables with no borders that allowed “squeezing in.” A common question was, “What are you up to?” In formal seminars, talks would seldom go more than fifteen minutes before someone would say, “I don’t understand this. What are you talking about?” One outspoken department head was famous for regularly getting up and saying, “What the hell are you doing that kind of crap for?” The more civilized form of the question is, “What is the fundamental direction and importance of what you have done, and where do you want to go.” In this way, the typical forty-five-minute seminar would stretch to an hour-and-a-half and often include some very blunt discussions.
Lesson four. The best science lab managers were some of the best scientists. Many of the best scientists avoid administrative roles for fear it would dilute their research efforts, but as a department head at Bell Labs, I could spend 80 percent of my time doing research in my own laboratory with my own hands. All department heads and division directors at Bell Labs were expected to carry on active research of the highest quality. Managers didn’t go into management to retire from active research.
What was the attraction to becoming a manager at Bell Labs? As managers, we could mentor the best scientists and influence the direction of science. Hiring and funding decisions were made at the department head and director level, and upper management didn’t demand extensive letters from outside experts to justify hiring. We were adequately funded and weren’t allowed to seek any outside funding. Beyond a base level of funding, the department head was the first person who decided on additional support for significant equipment purchases; for greater additional resources, a director was consulted. There were no outside referees and decisions to proceed were often made after a single discussion.
Lesson five. Developing and applying new technology will maximize your chances of making a great discovery. I tell my students and postdocs that if they are the hundredth person to look under a rock with the same set of tools, they are probably not going to see anything new. If you’re the first to look under the rock with a new set of tools, you don’t even have to be that smart to discover something new. At Bell Labs and LMB, there was a great appreciation for researchers who wanted to develop a new set of experimental tools.
While at Bell Labs, and earlier while I was a graduate student and postdoc at Berkeley, a large part of my efforts was spent improving or inventing new measurement tools. When I began to work on laser cooling and laser trapping of atoms at Bell Labs in the fall of 1983, the only application on my radar screen was that the technology could be used to make a better atomic clock. After my group demonstrated the first “atomic fountain” at Stanford in 1987, it was a mere seven years before the atomic fountain configuration became the atomic clock time standard. Seven years is a very short time to go from discovery to practical implementation.
In 1989, I and one of my graduate students, Mark Kasevich, showed that wave interference properties of atoms could make exquisite measurements of acceleration and rotation. Mark is now a professor at Stanford and is developing ultra sensitive atom interferometers with applications from precision testers of general relativity to more precise inertial guidance systems. He is also designing a satellite atom interferometer that will measure tiny changes in the force of gravity due to changes in the local distribution of the mass of the Earth. The sensitivity of this satellite should allow us to measure changes in the thickness of glaciers with submillimeter accuracy and changes in the amount of water stored in underground aquifers. In 1985, I had no clue cold atoms could be used to monitor climate change or track the unsustainable use of our water resources.
At Bell Labs, Art Ashkin used the same “optical tweezers” laser trap to hold onto individual viruses or bacteria. When I arrived at Stanford, I asked, “If we can hold onto atoms and individual bacteria, can we use the same technology to hold onto a single molecule of DNA?” By 1990, we were able to attach a micron diameter plastic sphere to an individual DNA molecule. By decorating the molecule with organic dyes, we could see the molecule in an optical microscope. We positioned the laser focal spot with a joystick hooked up to an electronically controlled mirror. To my graduate students, the ability to manipulate and see a single molecule of DNA was like playing a video game. After a few days of fun, I went into the lab and said, “Guys, I know you’re having a lot of fun, but let’s do some science.” This initial work on single molecules is having a huge impact on biology research.
Recently, I have become active in battery research and have begun to work with Professor Yi Cui, a star in the Materials Science Department at Stanford. Using new nanotechnology structures, we may have a shot at quadrupling the energy density of batteries and of increasing their charging rate ten-fold. If we can get the technology to work, it could change transportation energy. Imagine a $25,000 car with a battery that weighs less than an internal combustion engine and a transmission that can go 200 miles on a five-minute charge and over 300 miles on a full charge. If we can get this process to work, that would be wonderful. If not, there are many other people working on higher energy density batteries, and I have faith a solution will come from some group within the next decade.
I want to conclude by stressing the value of getting the right intellectual leaders to step forward to lead a team of researchers in a flat organization. The leaders should continue to be active researchers so that they remain solidly grounded. Research is a humbling endeavor, and failure is much more common than success. As Winston Churchill said, “Success is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.”
We have made the argument that investment in basic research is essential for the American Dream, for jobs, the economy, and all the rest of it. How do we respond to the people who say technology kills jobs? For example, they point to the jobs lost to information technology or to robotics. Is technology a job killer?
Technology does eliminate some jobs. We can all think of examples. But technology also creates jobs, and it creates better jobs and a better life for the people who have those jobs. Just this weekend I was looking at a letter Einstein wrote in which he addressed this same question. His response, which I’m paraphrasing, was that when one pursues science and technology, sometimes it produces negative outcomes. When we produce new human beings, sometimes the outcomes are negative. Does that mean we should quit reproducing?
The United States doesn’t have a lock on technology, so if we don’t research, develop, and implement new technology, someone else will. The trick is to figure out how to manage the transition to new technology. And that’s a problem worthy of deep thinking. We have to ensure that technology creates new, higher-value jobs.
How do you apply the experience you had in the golden days at Bell Labs to the current state of research?
To start, you should allow people to fail. The ARPA-E premise is exactly that. But you should also teach people to fail quickly. To assess quickly whether an idea has a chance of working, you need to test the most crucial “go or no-go” questions as soon as possible. If things are not going to work, move on. Funding agencies need to have the courage to say, “We won’t hold it against you if you fail because you tried something daring.” In ARPA-E, we expected nine out of ten projects to fail. Once it is clear that the milestones are not being met, we didn’t keep funding the project.
Norm, do you think industry is unwilling to take some of these risks?
I think industry is unable to do this. The market simply doesn’t tolerate it. I can suggest changes that could make it possible, but the main thing is that you have to give people a chance to fail and to learn from their failures. But when failures and successes take years of investment, there is little appetite among investors to provide funds.
Why did Bell Labs fail, and how can we make the financials for this kind of lab work in the future?
The most basic research areas that Bell Labs worked in began to disappear because the underlying company was no longer a government sanctioned monopoly. The corporate culture of AT&T – and later Lucent Technologies – was there but financial pressures didn’t allow them to support it in the style of the days when I was there. If you want to start a new Bell Labs, it either has to be supported by a wealthy, stable company with a long-term view – or you need to start a foundation. I think you would need about five billion dollars to create an endowment that could support a new Bell Labs.
If an endowed research laboratory moves forward, the intellectual property generated would be part of the payment to keep it going. Because the basic research done at a Bell Labs 2.0 might not see practical applications for ten or twenty years, there needs to be stable funding at the level of a few hundred million dollars a year to attract a critical mass of the best scientists. It helps to be near a great research university and national laboratory so that scientists can share expensive critical infrastructure and have access to graduate students.
Something I have been promoting for probably twenty-five years, with my usual lack of success, is that we change the capital gains tax in this country so that the gain on an asset that’s held for one day is taxed at a 99 percent rate and a gain on an asset that’s held ten years is taxed at a 1 percent rate. One can then draw whatever line between those points one wishes to produce the tax revenues you desire. That would cause investors and CEOs to act very differently. You would suddenly find people willing to support operations such as Bell Labs.
I was talking to the Rice faculty at lunchtime about the possibility of the re-emergence of great industrial labs. They felt that it was unlikely to happen because people in the financial community are not interested in five-year and ten-year investments. They are interested in one- to two-year investments that they can bundle, securitize, and sell, and they would lobby against changing the tax code to reward twenty-year investments over one- or two-year transactions. I agree with Norm, although I would make it twenty years instead of ten.
I’m a really big fan of the flat structure you talked about. It’s been shown to work. But how would a very hierarchical institution like the NIH shift from a top-down perspective to a flat culture? What policy changes are needed to encourage a Bell Labs structure in our universities and possibly in businesses?
We designed ARPA-E with a very flat structure. The director of ARPA-E, Arun Majumdar, would brainstorm as a scientist with the program managers for hours. Occasionally I would be part of those conversations. I am less familiar with how the NIH runs its Institutes; so let me talk about the idea of the Energy Hubs, another program we started in the Department of Energy. The intent of the Energy Hubs was to put together a critical mass of scientists and engineers that would be directed by the local leadership, in the style of Bell Labs and the Manhattan Project. The intent was to avoid micro-management from Washington. In university funding, there is the problem of how to fund genuine teams of investigators. Funding agencies want to foster collaborative efforts, but the culture of most university faculty is to divide the money among their own groups instead of working in truly intimate collaborations. If an extraordinary scientist were willing to step up and say, “I’ll lead a team effort and take personal responsibility for its success,” it would help.
Norm, I have seen you testify many times where you get questions about the partnership between government and industry. Do we pick winners and losers?
To some degree the government does; but this is quite different from much maligned, centralized economic planning. I’m a business guy, so I’m not in favor of the government simply picking winners and losers. But when the government conducts open and transparent competitions among ideas and then has capable individuals make considered judgments of merit, that seems to me to be appropriate.
Steve, what lessons were learned on Deep Horizon? That was an experience that came out of the blue. You didn’t go to Washington to do that.
When the big oil spill happened, I made a technical suggestion. The people at BP scoffed at it, but then they said, well, maybe it would work. So when the President heard about this, he said, “Chu, get down there and help them stop the leak.”
So I picked a team of five people, called them up, and said, “I want you to join me and figure out how we can help them in any way we can.” We started out thinking that most of our contributions would be in helping with diagnostics, but after a failed attempt to stop the leak in mid-May, I told Admiral Allen that we needed to be part of the approval process going forward.
Another member of my small group argued that it was risky to ask to be part of the approval process. That would mean that we were taking on responsibility. I said, “It’s OK. I don’t mind taking responsibility, but it will be a shared responsibility with BP.” I don’t think politicians are able or willing to assume technical responsibility. Over time the BP engineers began to trust us and really opened up. They saw that we weren’t looking to assign fault, and that we were focused on trying to help them stop the leak.
Being part of the decision-making process during a crisis like this cannot be done through a committee. If I had goofed, I might have gotten fired, but that’s okay. I would have gone back to a university. In the meantime I was willing to give the best recommendations possible. Those were nail-biting times. But the President backed me the whole time, and that was really important, because if I said, “Nope, we can’t do this until we know more about what’s going on,” BP couldn’t ignore me.
I was the first scientist to be a cabinet member in the history of the United States. When I was leaving, I said, “Mr. President, I really enjoyed working for you. You get a lot of credit for hiring me, a nonpolitician, to be a cabinet member. Do it again.” His inner circle was not enthusiastic about appointing another scientist. Perhaps they felt that scientists were less controllable, and they might blurt out the truth. The good news is that the President did it again.
Steve, let me say how much the nation appreciates you taking time out of the lab to serve in the way that you did. I’m sure that when you were a young physicist looking at cold atoms in the laboratory, you weren’t thinking you would like to spend a chunk of your career this way. But we so appreciate that you did. And Norm, you have served this nation in so many ways, many of which we can’t even talk about. But thank you for that service. And thanks to both of you for taking time out of your calendar. We feel privileged to have had you here this evening.
© 2015 by Neal Lane, Norman R. Augustine, and Steven Chu, respectively