Panel views on "Research after divestiture" at Globecom 2009

This panel discussion, with brief presentations by the panelists followed by open discussion, offered fresh perspectives, 25 years after divestiture, on how it has worked out and what we need now.  An audience of 35-40 Globecom attendees including John Vig, the 2009 President of IEEE, joined the discussion.

The three panelists were Paul Kuehn, Chair of Communication Networks and Computer Engineering at the University of Stuttgart; John Cioffi, Hitachi America Professor Emeritus of Engineering at Stanford University (presently CEO/COB, ASSIA Inc.), and Daniel Wedemeyer, Chair of the School of Communications at the University of Hawaii.  Steve Weinstein, a past President of the IEEE Communications Society, served as moderator.  The panel had been organized by Jeremiah Hayes, Professor Emeritus at Concordia University, who was unfortunately unable to attend.  The History Session, stimulated by ComSoc’s communications history chair Mischa Schwartz, Professor Emeritus at Columbia University, was put together by Professor Jacob Baal-Schem of Tel Aviv University and Professor Hayes.

None of the panelists shed the usual tears for the loss of the Bell Labs of pre-divestiture days.  It was generally agreed that the pace of innovation had increased, not decreased, with the end of the period of Bell Labs dominance.  The term “innovation” itself has come more to mean products and applications rather than new technical knowledge.  Innovation in technology and applications has been taken up by a variety of structures including industrial-university collaboration, government-funded institutions and projects, and innovation by new small companies, many founded by entrepreneurs who spent time at the old Bell Labs.  In fact, the greatest loss from the disappearance of the old Bell Labs may be its role as “Bell Labs University”, a training ground for future entrepreneurs. 

There was discussion about the replacement for this training camp.  The panelists noted several developments, including regional government-industry projects and new university emphasis on entrepreneurial, environmental, and societal aspects as well as an interdisciplinary technical foundation.  Online access to vast bodies of knowledge and professional networking also support professional development    President Vig prompted the panelists to consider the role of  IEEE, which the panelists agreed had much to offer coming generations of innovators through enhanced distribution of technical information and building a broad technical community.

There was concern that some fundamental research aspects have been overlooked in the post-divestiture environment, with the fast outcome-oriented approach of today discouraging thorough study before products are put in the market, and sometimes neglecting more general applicability possibilities and security and privacy issues.  The panel hoped that both fast market launches and these more thoughtful considerations might somehow merge into a more holistic approach, with the European research funding programs a model, if not always an efficient one. Strong funding of basic research is desirable, not by a private or monopolistic organization as the Bell System used to be, but by "Center of Excellence" type organizations in universities or research institutes, in cooperation with corporate research. 

In summary, the Panel felt that the pre-divestiture Bell Labs was an important and necessary model for its time, but that the world had changed and there are new ways of creating a strong cadre of competent technical innovators.  As suggested above, these include government-industry-university collaboration and direct and indirect government funding of applied research and the transition of technical knowledge into product innovation.

Summary by Steve Weinstein