in the History of Physicists in
by Orville R. Butler
Anderson interviewing Darlene Solomon, Vice President & Director,
Agilent Laboratories, July 2006.
on photo to see a larger image
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,
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.
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
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.