Forget About the Mythical Lone Inventor in the Garage

What's to come?
May 18 2012 7:00 AM

Forget About the Mythical Lone Inventor in the Garage

Real innovations happen in big, well-funded labs.

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At this point, we don’t know the answers to those questions. But we do know the most promising way to find those answers—by putting world-class researchers in world-class labs, inspiring them with an urgent sense of mission, and organizing them into “dream teams” with the combined expertise necessary to look at these questions from multiple perspectives and come up with the smartest, most practical solutions.

In years past, these types of mission-focused teams of experts could be found in America’s renowned corporate laboratories, such as IBM, Xerox PARC, and AT&T’s Bell Laboratories—organizations designed to turn scientific discoveries into commercially viable inventions and technologies.

I began my own career at Bell Labs, back in 1988, drawn by its reputation as a place where fundamental research was prized as the basic building block of technological innovation in the service of information technology.

For decades, as Jon Gertner describes in his recent book The Idea Factory, Bell Labs had served as a magnet for some of the world’s top researchers in science, computers, and mathematics. The results were tremendous, both scientifically and commercially—the invention of the charge-coupled device and the laser, as well as vital contributions to computing, satellite communications, semiconductors, and wireless technologies. By putting great scientists in great facilities, Bell Labs spurred whole new industries, created millions of new jobs, and changed the way we live.

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But in 1995, in the wake of deregulation, AT&T spun off the labs, resulting in sharply decreased research budgets and a much narrower focus on technological research with a shorter-term likelihood of commercial marketability. Bell Labs’ reign as the world’s greatest industrial laboratory ended in 2008 when it pulled out of basic science, material physics, and semiconductor research—a decision that put an end to one of the last bastions of basic research within the corporate world.

In a financial world that is focused on quarterly results, it’s understandable that corporations have become unwilling to invest in basic research that can take 10 or 15 years to result in new money-making products and technologies. But without basic research, we will not be able to create the new products that spawn new industries and create good new jobs. So, increasingly, the responsibility for funding basic scientific research has fallen on the federal government.

That’s an enormous responsibility. But it also is an enormous opportunity for the national laboratories to demonstrate our unique ability to bring together partners from academia and industry to address the grand challenges of our time.

This effort isn’t easy. It requires armies of highly intelligent, highly educated people with deep curiosity, strong work ethics, and unflagging persistence. It requires a new, open approach to collaboration and teamwork. It requires a critical mass of state-of-the-art laboratories and instruments. It requires adequate funding to keep those vital factors in place over years, and even decades.

And perhaps most importantly, it requires a new, reality-based understanding that most breakthrough innovations are developed in laboratories, not garages or dorm rooms.

As a scientist, I know that every transformative idea is first born in the mind of an individual genius. But a lone inventor burning the midnight oil cannot match the impact of a team of brilliant experts working to develop that idea within a system designed to maximize discovery, with access to the best tools on earth—supercomputers, synchrotrons, accelerators, and all the other dazzling technologies that support science today.

The technological might of our National Laboratory system is unlikely to rival a musty garage in the public imagination. The men and women who work at my own laboratory, Argonne, and at our sister labs will never be portrayed as heroes in the pages of comic books. But we can’t allow romantic myths about creative loners to overshadow the reality that America’s knowledge enterprise depends on the work of robust teams of highly trained experts, enabled by a world-class scientific infrastructure and supported consistently by public funds.

The work we do in the national laboratories promises to dramatically accelerate the discovery and development of new materials, technologies, and processes—and ultimately, those efforts will power the expansion of the American economy. It may not be glamorous, but it’s important and it’s real—and personally, I think our real-world researchers are far more interesting and compelling than any mythical introverted genius working alone in a backyard shed.

After all—these days, even Iron Man is working in a team.

Eric D. Isaacs is the director of Argonne National Laboratory.

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