#160 from R&D
Innovator Volume 4, Number 6
or Bottom-up Research Management: Thou Shalt Versus Eureka!
Gilman is professor of materials science and engineering,
University of California at Los Angeles.
He has held positions at the General Electric Company,
Allied-Signal Corporation, Amoco Corporation as well as
professorships at Brown University and the University of Illinois.
His book, Inventivity: The Art and
Science of Research Management (Chapman
& Hall) was published in 1992.
The Lord must
feel mean. It was bad
enough when corporate management’s favored “planned”
research. Now a passion has arisen for “planning” research at the
level of government policy. It
reminds me of the scene in the movie, Amadeus,
when the Director of the Opera tells the irrepressible Mozart what
to compose! A more
current nightmare might be a conservative politician advising the
late jazz trumpet player, Miles Davis, about music.
In the research
realm, imagine the gas-lighting industry reviewing Thomas
Edison’s application for government funding to develop
incandescent lighting. Or,
the Wright brothers approaching the American Railroad Association
as a partner in applying for an aircraft development grant.
Or Kenneth Olson considering the “need” for Jobs and
Wozniak (founders of Apple Computer) to develop small computers
for home use. On the
academic side, remember Fourier’s professeurs rejection of his
proposal that any analytic function can be expressed as a sum of
periodic functions. The
list is endless.
and Innovative Research
crystallized the central problem flaw in the top-down approach in
1513: “there is nothing
more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more
uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the
introduction of a new order of things, because the innovator has
for enemies all those who have done well under the old condition,
and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.”
So what politician--or for that matter, what corporate
manager--can realistically be expected to be a torch bearer for
innovative research? They
will, of course, feel free to sit on the bench and complain about
how low the local inventivity is.
In addition to
counterproductive politics and limited vision, the top-down also
suffers from arrogance. Highly
placed people tend to have the “God syndrome”--they think that
they have exceptional insight.
The evidence (from their viewpoint) being: why else would
they have achieved their exalted status?
They come to believe that their opinions regarding
virtually any subject are superior.
This may be true for subjects where their experience is
relevant; but in research, the subject is not yet discovered, and
experience is absent.
inventors tend to have great technical skills, together with a
sense of the eventual impact of their inventions.
James Watt recognized that the power of expanding steam
would supplant animal muscle.
Abraham Darby realized that cheap steel would change the
nature of large structures and machinery, thereby starting the
industrial revolution. Michael
Faraday revealed the nature of electromagnetic flux and its
implications for electromotive machinery.
The Wright brothers added a third dimension to the world.
Neils Bohr shook the foundations of chemistry, physics, and
Shockley knew that sold-state amplifiers would transform
Maiman’s laser caused a renaissance in optics.
Watson and Crick changed biology forever.
Yet none of these revolutionaries were in the top levels of
the technical-social structures of their times.
Free Market in Research Ideas
management isn't the best route toward discovery and invention,
how can bottom-up invention be encouraged?
Can a significant part of the R&D community be
encouraged to support the bottom-up approach?
My experiences as
a research manager indicate that a free market in research ideas
and ambitions is what’s needed.
Unlike a controlled market, this generates competition
among the researchers, themselves.
And this is where the important ideas form.
When researchers set their own goals in the context of
standards set by their most effective masters and colleagues, they
become inspired to perform above the average.
This is why the Cavendish Laboratory has produced so much
outstanding work in the academic milieu.
It’s also why the Bell Telephone Laboratories have done
outstanding industrially oriented research, and why the Naval
Research Laboratory is one of the few U.S. government laboratories
with Nobel Laureates.
clearly exhibited talent need to be unfettered as they exercise
their talent. The
notion that this is expensive is nonsense.
I have pointed out in “Return of Research
Expenditures--Lessons of a Minimal Model” (Materials
Technology, Vol. 8, 270, 1993), that for each unit of money
spent making a patentable invention, roughly 500 units are needed
to develop and commercialize it. Thus the real expense comes later in the process.
The overall expense of innovation is dominated by
engineering design, manufacturing, marketing, and general
management. They are
the ones to be minimized, and these activities need to be
optimized. The initial research is only the smell that starts the
dog’s tail wagging.
I'm not denying
that a research organization needs a charter. Direction is essential.
Otherwise, unfettered researchers will be no more
harmonious than a group of musicians without a score.
However, the more general the charter, the better the
results (assuming highly talented researchers).
Thus the management problem consists of recruiting,
recruiting, and recruiting this talented workforce.
And not of spending more than minimal time on planning
that’s likely to be counter-productive.