Abstract: The halls of industry have always been peopled with physicists. For many years a bit more than a third of PhD physicists worked in industry, while almost half went into academic research and teaching. By the mid-1990s the numbers for new PhDs had reversed, with more than half going into industry and a little less than one-third going into academic institutions (see PHYSICS TODAY, April 2007, page 28). Notwithstanding the important relationship between physicists and industry, the kind of work that industrial physicists do and the way industrial R&D is organized have, until recently, been largely a matter of speculation. In 2003 the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics began a five-year study of the history of physicists in industry—the first systematic assessment of the work that physicists do in the corporate sector, how the organization and funding of industrial R&D have changed over the past several decades, and the extent to which the records of physicists in industry are being preserved for current and future researchers.
Here are the principle findings from the study:
Companies haven’t achieved a consensus on how to conduct R&D and are struggling to find the best mix of longer-term research and short-term development. That is to say, they are trying to balance the need for a stream of innovative technologies with the ongoing need to report profits.
The funding and organizational structures of corporate R&D have undergone radical changes since the 1980s. In particular, the traditional centralized R&D laboratory is an endangered species.
Many companies rely on external sources—especially physicist entrepreneurs and physics startups—for innovative technology.
No standards exist for preserving the records of corporate R&D. As a result, historically valuable records, including the once ubiquitous laboratory notebook, are being lost.