The problem the country faces is that the conditions in which Charles Kao, Willard Boyle, and George Smith made their breakthroughs are harder to come by today. Kao, for example, made his breakthroughs in fiber optics (the thin glass threads that now carry a vast chunk of the world's phone and data traffic) while at Standard Telecommunications Laboratories in the U.K. Similarly, Boyle and Smith designed the first digital imaging technology while working at Bell Labs, the legendary research organization that was once part of AT&T.
What was so special in these corporate labs of the 1960s?
In these settings, world-class scientists were allowed to work on deep-going, "basic" research quite freely, albeit in close proximity to commercial product development. The result was uniquely productive. No wonder Energy Secretary Steve Chu — another Nobel laureate — often recalls fond memories of his time at Bell Labs, calling it a special place that promoted high-intensity collaboration and empowered scientists to conduct long-term basic research that could lead to new breakthroughs while also holding them accountable for delivering products to the parent company. Indeed, millions of jobs have resulted from such contributions to science and technology, including such Bell Labs inventions as the transistor, photovoltaic cells, and cell phone technology.
Unfortunately though, this sort of corporate research platform is in trouble today. As noted in a recent Wall Street Journal article, the tyranny of shorter-term horizons means big companies now spend much less on potentially risky long-term basic research. Meanwhile, much of the action in long-term research has shifted to universities that have a mixed record in commercializing breakthroughs for the good of the regional and national economy. The upshot: Corporations' shorter-term focus combined with universities' variable record at commercialization serves to limit society's overall innovation capacity and so its capacity for high-quality job creation.
Many of the type of research that was done at the old Bell Labs and are no longer done there are now being taken over by many US National Labs, which till recently, were themselves stretched very thin due to stagnant, or even diminishing budgets. These are basic research in which one simply can't immediately attach any kind of possible applications, much less, bring an quick, short-term profit to a company. Yet, as we have seen this year and repeated many times already, these high-risk endeavor can produce such a tremendous pay-offs that not only advance technology and produce fat profits to many companies, they also change our world and our lives directly.
If this isn't convincing enough for why an investment in such basic research must be supported, and why the economy depends on such a thing, then nothing will.