Bell Labs, the greatest research lab of the twentieth century, has been called America’s national treasure and the crown jewel of AT&T and Lucent. To scientists all over the world, pursuing research at Bell Labs has long been a dream because of its brilliant scientists, numerous inventions, academic freedom, and plentiful resources. But now, forced by the marketplace, competition, and economic conditions, the world’s most prestigious research lab is in the midst of radical cultural change.
Bell Labs: Life in the Crown Jewel tells the fascinating story of the transition Bell Labs is undergoing as it adapts to new business conditions. After AT&T’s break up in 1984 as part of the settlement of a government anti-trust lawsuit, the boom years of basic research started to end. A much smaller AT&T, still a giant company, was thrust into the competitive world. The change, slow at first, picked up pace in the 1990s following the next breakup of AT&T, which created Lucent, Bell Labs’ new parent. After a few good years, Lucent found itself in financial difficulty in a very tough telecommunications market. Lucent responded by breaking up into smaller companies, which led to a smaller Bell Labs. Lucent’s worsening financial condition forced it to downsize with Bell Labs sharing the pain. Bell Labs is now being forced to move faster and further towards helping Lucent’s business needs.
Moving from university-style (basic) research to industrial (applied) research is much more difficult than going from industrial research to basic research because industrial research puts constraints on scientists while basic research frees them to explore new frontiers. Bell Labs researchers, who once were free to focus on innovation, research excellence, and prizes, now have to worry about business relevance. The culture of lifetime employment is gone and the pendulum has swung from basic to applied research.