#160 from R&D Innovator Volume 4, Number 6          June 1995

Top-down or Bottom-up Research Management: Thou Shalt Versus Eureka! 
by John J. Gilman, Ph.D.

Dr. 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.

Management and Innovative Research

Macchiavelli 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.

The greatest 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 philosophy.  William Shockley knew that sold-state amplifiers would transform electronics.  Theodore 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. 

A Free Market in Research Ideas

Since top-down 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.

Researchers with 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.

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