Tuesday, March 20, 2007

'Please fail very quickly—so that you can try again'

That is from Erich Schmidt, Google's CEO, quoted in this Economist story on how corporate R&D has changed in the last several decades. It's a little too computing-centric; it covers the R&D philosophy at companies like Google, Microsoft, Cisco, Intel, HP ... For example, here's the bit about Cisco:

The post-war R&D model needs updating ... because companies now have a greater choice of where to shop for ideas. “If you go back to that period of AT&T, there wasn't the same kind of engineering going on at universities, and Bell Labs could not rely on an external cadre of engineers for their research—they really had to do it internally,” says Charles Giancarlo of Cisco.

He admits his company has long been accused of “R&D by M&A”—but he does not see why that should be a problem. Cisco spends $4.3 billion a year on employing over 16,000 engineers around the world, in addition to tapping into the venture-capital industry's start-ups. Basic research inside companies is impossible in a competitive industry, according to Mr Giancarlo. “We might decry this on a public-policy basis, but at least as far as public markets are concerned it is a Darwinian world. You live or die by that.”

Commenting on this article, Gordon Watts makes a valid point:

But this product driven model won’t work for the next big thing. If transistors powered this revolution — what will power the next? You’ll need something hidden away, insulated from the corporate winds, to do that research. Currently only the government has a “business model” that can fund that sort of research.

If basic research (which will lead to the 'next big thing') is the responsibility of universities, Doug Natelson points to some of the problems:

... Anyone who knows how university research actually works can tell you many reasons why this is a bad idea. Apart from low-level practical considerations (publish vs patent? foreign vs. domestic students? export controls?), the big killer here is just one of resources. Back when I was at Bell, if they wanted to they could have put a dozen condensed matter PhDs to work on a problem, along with technical support staff. Given how universities work, with teaching commitments, administrative tasks, student timescales, etc., no university achieve that kind of critical mass.

In comments, Incoherent Ponderer seems to agree:

Universities are not likely to fill the vacancy, for reason Doug mentions - university research happens in small groups, collaborations are often discouraged - everyone wants to claim the intellectual ownership of idea/research. Besides, grant reviews every 3 years makes it difficult to do long-term research.


  1. Kiran said...


    So what is the conclusion in your opinion who is best placed to do basic research, if the companies dont want to do them, and the Universities cant?

  2. gaddeswarup said...

    Unfortunately, this seems to be a reasonable evaluation of how things are now. Probably there will be always people who do not fit in to the system and those who can use it well and thrive. Looking at Fields medals last year, we see both types. But this an area which does not need big budgets.