Sunday, January 08, 2012

The Pentagon and R&D

One of my longer-range projects, which may never get done, is to write up some of the history of research in government laboratories, as seen from my perch at Los Alamos. It would be a broader history of something that was felt to be important in the 1950s and 1960s and got whittled away by any number of factors after those plummy days. The 1970s weren't too bad, and we even got some good stuff done in the 1980s, but it kept getting more and more difficult.

I was inspired in that enterprise by Hugh Gusterson's excellent article (sadly, now behind a subscription wall; this is an excerpt) on the decline of science at Los Alamos. But there was a history of decline before Gusterson's start in the 1980s that, in some ways, says more about the country's attitude toward research than the history after.

Now comes the New York Times with a paen to the Pentagon as the fount of R&D. Well, they have lots of dollars. A number of people have written about what's wrong with that idea and article; here's one that hits some of the points. I saw another somewhere along the way, the link now lost, that mentioned the corruption of the Pentagon's system of describing research, the 6.x system, where 6.1 is pure research. Some time ago, the greed of the defense contractors started pushing development and procurement, the big moneymakers (the higher numbers, like 6.5) back into the lower numbers so they could loot those categories. I suspect that very little pure research is done any more in 6.1.

But I really do have to note Robert Wright's article. The Times mentions Charles H. Townes, father of the laser, who apparently had some DoD funding at some time.
I don't know anything about Charles H. Townes, but if he's a Nobel Laureate who laid the groundwork for compact discs and laser eye surgery, here's my guess: Even if he had never gotten whatever DOD support he got, he would have done something pretty productive with his mind. He might, for example, have done research in the private sector, maybe starting his own company or going to work for one.
Mr. Wright is new to blogging, although he seems to have practiced journalism somewhere in his past. Mr. Wright, teh Google is your friend! Here's Townes's Nobel biography, obtained a little faster than I could type his name into the Google box.

Townes worked at Bell Labs, an institution that Mr. Wright, born in 1957 (teh Google again) may be unaware of. It was indeed private, as is Columbia University, where he worked later. Bell Labs was an important part of the country's research and development; the transistor was invented there. But that Bell Labs (I think there continues an institution by that name) is long gone. That's part of the story of the breakdown of research and development in America. There was also an ethos that held that research was important, teaching was important, and so people like Townes remained in institutions of higher education rather than creating their own companies, favored as that path and phrase are today.

Wright goes on from there to contrast private-sector and defense department R&D, seemingly oblivious that today's private-sector R&D compares to Townes's Bell Labs or what he did at Columbia as assembling Legos does to writing a novel. The Defense Department funding that Townes received was very likely 6.1 funding when that really meant research.

His admitted ignorance of history derails all the rest of Wright's post. I guess I'm going to have to write my long-range post, although I have another intensive one under way.

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