Research and Development

There are two kinds of research: research and development, and basic research. The purpose of research and development is to invent a product for sale. Edison invented the first commercially successful light bulb, but he did not invent the underlying science that made the light bulb possible. Edison at least understood the science, though, which was the primary difference between inventing the light bulb and inventing fire. Basic research is something else - ostensibly the search for knowledge for its own sake. Basic research provides the scientific knowledge upon which R&D is later based. Sending telescopes into orbit or building superconducting supercolliders is basic research. There is no way, for example, that the $1.5 billion Hubble space telescope is going to lead directly to a new car or computer or method of solid waste disposal. That is not what it is for. If a product ever results from basic research, it usually does so fifteen to twenty years later, following a later period of research and development.

Nearly all companies do research and development, but only a few do basic research. The companies that can afford to do basic research (and cannot afford not to) are ones that dominate their markets. Most basic research in industry is done by companies that have at least a 50 percent market share. They have both the greatest resources to spare for this type of activity and the most to lose if, by choosing not to do basic research, they eventually lose their technical advantage over competitors. Such companies typically devote about 1 percent of sales each year to research intended not to develop specific products but to ensure that the company remains a dominant player in its industry twenty years from now. It is cheap insurance, since failing to do basic research guarantees that the next major advance will be owned by someone else.

The problem with industrial basic research, and what differentiates it from government basic research, is this fact that its true product is insurance, not knowledge. If a researcher at the government-sponsored Lawrence Livermore Lab comes up with some particularly clever new way to kill millions of people, there is no doubt that his work will be exploited and that weapons using the technology will eventually be built. The simple rule about weapons is that if they can be built, they will be built. But basic researchers in industry find their work is at the mercy of the marketplace and their captains-of-industry bosses. If a researcher at General Motors comes up with a technology that will allow cars to be built for $100 each, GM executives will quickly move to bury the technology, no matter how good it is, because it threatens their current business, which is based on cars that cost thousands of dollars each to build. Consumers would revolt if it became known that GM was still charging high prices for cars that cost $100 each to build, so the better part of business valor is to stick with the old technology since it results in more profit dollars per car produced.

In the business world, just because something can be built does not at all guarantee that it will be built, which explains why RCA took a look at the work of George Heilmeier, a young researcher working at the company's research center in New Jersey and quickly decided to stop work on Heilmeier's invention, the liquid crystal display. RCA made this mid-1960s decision because LCDs might have threatened its then-profitable business of building cathode ray picture tubes. Twenty-five years later, of course, RCA is no longer a factor in the television market, and LCD displays - nearly all made in Japan - are everywhere.

(From Accidental empires by Robert X Cringeley)