a vision modulated by feedback from the surrounding world of research
The more you read about Bell Labs, the more you have the feeling that such places have vanished nowadays. But the world keeps rolling out new ideas, so where could the new nests of innovation be?
Between its formal foundation in 1925 and its decay in the 1990s, Bell Labs has been the best-funded and most successful corporate research laboratory the world has ever seen. At its heyday, Bell Labs was a premier facility of its type which led to the discovery and development of a vast range of revolutionary technologies. Being funded by one of the strongest co-governmental subsidiaries — American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T) — Bell Labs was primarily involved in research towards improvement of telephone services and communication. Some of these developments found use not only in the communications, but also other fields of science. Although it is pointless to list all, some notable examples for technologies which found "dual purpose" are: the MASERs – amplifiers for long-distance links; Transistors – a generic information technology component; LASERs – originating from long-distance fiber optic links and has many other purposes; Radio telescopes (cosmic microwave background radiation) – noise in sattelite communications; Foundation of the theory of information – all fields of science; TDMA, CDMA, Quadrature AM, all basic foundation of comm theory; Laser cooling; CCDs – sprung out from their attempts to create a solid-state memory; Unix, C, C++ – all used in information processing nowadays; and many many more...
Bell Labs was a nest which developed brilliant minds, sustaining innovation traditions for over 60 years. Unfortunately, the state of the labs now is not what is used to be and currently, if not fully defunct, it crawls at a much slower pace. There are many theories and speculations as to why Bell Labs got defunct, but instead of digging into history demistifying what went wrong, let's focus our lens into the new age.
Heads up! Such nests are still around, it's just most aren't as big and prolific as they used to be in those days. There have been a couple of shifts in the research world, mainly being that after the end of the cold war primary research is no longer a tax write-off which reduced the general monetary stimulus of such institutions. Many of those big conglomerates have since shut down or at their best split up, so they work only on areas where their division makes money. It is hard for us to admit it, but a large portion of modern innovations including primary research happens in start-ups. In big companies you will still find intrapreneurs and individual hooligans who do what they want, but it's harder to find someone who will pay you to lurk around and do blue sky R&D all day. Unfortunately every now and then, closing R&D groups lets CEOs cut a large expense, raise the stock price and get the hell out before the company sinks because it has no R&D.
There are still quite a few governmentally funded labs and institutes, but because there is no strict control on spendings and technology deployability, these places end up doing research which is way ahead of its time. So far, that some of their claimed purposes have not yet been even written in modern science fiction books. Take the recent growth of interest to quantum computing and photon entanglement. These days it is not rare to see quantum field researchers hoping to get more taxpayer money, so they could shoot a single photon in the sky and receive it with a satellite. Such examples of research may sound ridiculous with today's state of technology, but the truth is that Bell and any other successful institutes have always spent budget on black hole research and that's inevitable.
On the other hand, the research in startups (and I am not talking about the numerous bonanza phone app firms) faces huge obstacles before it reaches a somewhat stable state which would allow for further growth. There is a plenty of innovative ideas out there that need to be advanced in order to become a reality, but because of all that time spent hashing out business plans and "evidence-based elevator pitches" (yes that's what they call them) is totally wasted and your core idea turns out to be infeasible because you are already late or can't keep-up dealing with venture capitalists, or even worse – startup incubator funding programmes. These obstacles make primary research in this new era somewhat difficult, or rather the word to use is "different". Researchers no longer have to deal only with technical issues, but on top of that they need to cope with the dynamics of research with a destiny highly dependent on quick near-future results. That is to say, to be successful, modern-day research needs highly flexible and broadband personalities having that helicopter view on all aspects of their findings. To achieve this, many successful research groups aim to attract the best and brightest minds, with a diversity of perspectives, skills and personalities – including a mix of some who "think" and many who "do", but all with exceptional ability. Focusing on real world problems, with the ideal that the bigger the mountain to climb, the better works to some extent; only if there is sufficient funding for over a 5+ year period as anything less than that builds-up pressure. The measure of success has been the hardest to define, but can primarily be based on the long-term impact of the disruptive innovations achieved.
But not only the dynamics of this new economic world have led to the end of large research centres. Sciences themself have become more diverse and share less in common. For example, although image sensors and microprocessors could still be groupped to the field of microelectronics and were invented hand-in-hand at big national laboratories, nowadays both are dramatically different and share little in common.
Consequently — with all of that said — for better or worse, it is likely that most of us would one day end-up working in a small group, isolated from our neighbours. Dreaming of huge research facilities never hurts, but researching what else is there would not hurt you either.