AIP History Center Newsletter
Volume XXXVIII , No. 2, Fall 2006

 

Progress in the History of Physicists in
Industry Project

by Orville R. Butler

Joe Anderson interviewing Darlene Solomon, Vice President & Director, Agilent Laboratories, July 2006.

Click on photo to see a larger image

The AIP History Center’s grant-funded Project to Document the History of Physicists in Industry, which extends
through December 2007, moved into the home stretch this past year. We successfully negotiated interviewing visits to several companies in an area we had deferred to the end because of
its special sensitivy to inspection: the Aerospace and Defense sector. Meanwhile we got well underway with coding and preliminary analysis of previous interviews. Project historian Orville R. Butler and Director Joe Anderson completed site visits at the corporate laboratories of Honeywell Aerospace, Lockheed Martin, General Atomics, and Agilent Technologies, adding
nearly 40 interviews to the project. Another six extended life-history interviews were completed by AIP postdoctoral historian Babak Ashrafi and others. Butler and Anderson will soon visit Raytheon and are in the process of arranging the final laboratory site visit of the project, and they are also visiting public and private archives that may preserve the history of corporate R&D.

As the laboratory site visits have wound down, our emphasis has shifted to coding and analysis of the over one hundred interviews collected so far. NVivo, the program we use for analysis, released a major upgrade this summer that permits increased automation of encoding as well as far more detailed analysis. We have had to modify our coding process in minor ways to work around current bugs in the program, but once coding is
completed we should be able to undertake detailed analysis limited only by the number and scope of our interviews.

Preliminary Findings

In the process of editing and encoding the interviews we have noticed several trends that we expect will be evident in our final analysis. Some of these trends have already been well documented but others do not yet appear in the research literature. The literature has described a decline of “pure” research in industrial settings, which our study confirms. Many of our respondents argue that the distinction between pure and applied research in industry has always been something of a myth, and that instead of “pure” vs. “applied” research, the distinction has in fact been “long term” vs. “near term.” If we accept that definition, our study shows a continued trend toward “near term” research, and an increasing influence of business divisions over the nature of industrial research. The
latter is most commonly done by giving control over the lab budget to the business divisions. These divisions’ influences include a push towards research that can provide a quicker return on investment. While modest exceptions to this trend can be found, they exist primarily where “research” is itself a product that is sold primarily to the government, often funded by ongoing contracts.

The effects of the growing influence of electronic records and communications is less clear-cut. As in other fields, e-mail has increasingly replaced telephone conversation as
a primary source of communication. Laboratory notebooks, on the other hand, have declined in use rather than migrating to an electronic format. This assertion will no doubt be finetuned by subsequent analysis. Some companies still maintain extensive requirements for research documentation in laboratory notebooks. More often, however, the use of lab notebooks has become largely voluntary and in some cases virtually non-existent. Some laboratories maintain a form of electronic “room” where researchers on a project post and discuss their findings. Others continue a strong oral tradition of “hallway” discussions. In periodic formal reports, PowerPoint presentations have replaced view-graphs. Even where widely used, however, PowerPoint remains somewhat controversial. Some interviewees argue that PowerPoint has changed the nature of presentations from data-based to picture- or concept-based. They suggest this has a potential to increase the role of managers outside the R&D labs who don’t understand the science underlying the concepts. Others argue that PowerPoint presentations have diminished the free-flowing discussion of concepts between scientists by imposing a narrow format on the previously open interactions during reporting sessions, and leads to a focus on results over process.

These and other findings remain tentative at this point, but they give us an initial framework to understand and conceptualize the interviews that we’ve completed. As we bring the interview portion of the History of Physicists in Industry Project to a close in the next few months, we will devote much of the remaining year and a half to coding and analyzing our interviews and preparing the final report.

 


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