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Few persons would dispute the assertion that advances in technology have profoundly affected recent history. Yet the process by which technology is developed, refined, and brought to production is both complex and subtle, and it evades easy generalizations. But the very difficulty in grasping the nature of technology development should serve more as a spur than as a barrier to understanding. For one thing, the subject has a strong intellectual fascination. More important, technology affects each of us, whether we assist in developing it, consume it, invest in it, or pay taxes to finance it. This book looks at some of the institutions in which technology development occurs. For reasons explained below, we have selected for close examination primarily those laboratories operated by or managed for the Federal Government. And we want to answer one question: What do these institutions do and how well do they do it?
This might seem a fairly easy question to answer. The surprising thing is how few attempts have been made to answer it and how few of those have transcended the obvious. There are excellent studies of, for example, the functioning of large organizations, the formulation of science policy by the Federal Government and some large private enterprises, the genesis of scientific concepts, and the sociology of scientific disciplines. What we lack are accounts of the working of installations on the order of the National Bureau of Standards, the Naval Research Laboratory, or Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where much of the most advanced technology has been developed. No doubt, we could account for this lack in several ways: Scientists and engineers may not have found the right words to explain what they do; the compartmentalization of research and development makes it difficult for anyone to see the institution whole; and, in some of the larger laboratories, the best work often occurs entirely outside formal organizational channels. Whatever the reasons, we do not have a succinct account of how large technology development laboratories operate. This book is intended to provide such an account.
But that account is possible only within self-imposed limitations. Except in passing, we will have little to say about technology development in agriculture, medicine, geology, or the social sciences - say, the development of computers specifically designed to manipulate large data bases. Instead, our focus will be on the systematic use of scientific knowledge to produce large, complex hardware systems: spacecraft, advanced weapons, nuclear reactors, aircraft, and electronic systems such as radar. This is the most visible and certainly the most expensive kind of technology development sponsored by the Federal Government and the very large private corporations, which is one reason for examining it. A second reason is that these institutions manifest the issues of "Big Science" in their most acute form: How do we translate basic scientific concepts into operating systems? How do we break down the compartmentalization between scientists and engineers? How do we permit discretionary research within the limits of a rulebound community? How do we redirect institutions as their larger programs are completed? And how do we maintain a certain necessary distance between the laboratory and its sponsoring agency or corporation?
A third reason for studying the large technology development laboratories is that the programs that serve to justify their existence are massive social facts. In one way, this only states the obvious, since laboratories on the order of Los Alamos National Laboratory or the Marshall Space Flight Center are vital to the economies of the regions in which they are located. We mean rather more. Quite simply, the aircraft and integrated-circuit electronics industries would have developed quite differently without the stimulus provided by federally-sponsored defense and space programs or the protocols and measurement tools developed at the National Bureau of Standards. The work of large Federal technology development laboratories and the large privately-sponsored ones served to set the direction that certain major industries – much of what is now fashionably called "high technology” – have taken.
In sum, the large technology development laboratory has been an important (though not easily quantifiable) element in American economic growth. Whether such laboratories can be directed by some central agency or the White House toward stimulating economic growth is still an open question. The notions that the laboratories can produce innovation on demand as part of some ill-defined “industrial policy” or that they constitute a republic of science whose members are accountable only to each other are also very questionable. The role of the large technology development laboratory is limited because it is important, important because it is limited. There is no sense in squandering national resources, and the roles of government and most commercial laboratories - or rather, laboratories whose missions are to produce commercial products - are not interchangeable. In the course of this book, we shall argue that most government laboratories exist to do work which commercial firms
have no incentive to do; to provide a portfolio of technical concepts, some of which may be taken up by the parent organization once current programs end; above all, to define those technology programs whose actual development will be mostly in the hands of industrial contractors. If our book is biased in favor of any thesis, it is that the greatest strength of the technology development laboratory is in basic and applied research and not (with rare exceptions) in product development.
This book, then, is intended as an introduction – for scientists, research administrators, students in technical areas, and the general public-to a subject that has not received the treatment it obviously deserves. Specifically, it is designed to accomplish three things deriving from our original question: to describe how technology development laboratories really operate; to identify conditions that militate in favor of or against the performance of a laboratory's mission; and to draw certain conclusions as to how such laboratories should be managed. Of course, the conclusions should follow logically from the analyses that preceded them. If our analyses are correct, we shall find that successful diversification is most likely to occur in areas closely related to the laboratory's core mission, or that the existence of a technical capability in a laboratory sometimes triggers a national or a corporate policy based on that capability.
Our work melds (or tries to meld) two viewpoints, two quite different kinds of experience. One of us is a physicist by training, a research administrator by profession, and a student of the history of science by avocation. The other is a social scientist specializing in the study of large technology-based organizations. We hope that our collaboration, based as it is on differing experience and perspectives, has been fruitful, though it has not always been easy.
The Management of Research Institutions originated as a course of lectures first delivered by one of the authors (Mark) as a Consulting Professor at Stanford University during the 1974-1975 semester. These lectures are the nucleus of this book. But in the process of trying to get our thoughts down, the book outgrew its original framework; we dropped several lectures, expanded others, and added much completely new material - some two-thirds of the text. We have tried, however, to retain the immediacy and spontaneity that mark a good lecture.
While we take full responsibility for everything in the text, we feel that, insofar as we accomplished what we set out to do, much credit is due to those persons who encouraged us, criticized our drafts, and eased the pains of bringing a book to press. John V. Foster, former director of Development at the NASA Ames Research Center, and Dr. Chester M. Van Atta, former associate director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, participated in developing the material for the original lecture series. Jeff Struthers, of the Office of Management and Budget, Dr. Sylvia Fries, director of the NASA History Office, and Dr. Malcolm Currie, executive vice president of the Hughes Aircraft Company, read through our drafts and offered penetrating criticism. Many institutions patiently answered our requests for photographs and technical data, and we are pleased to acknowledge their assistance at appropriate points in the text. At NASA, Dorothy Kokoski cheerfully supervised our drafts as they went through typing, and Eleanor Burdette of the NASA Technical Library supplied research materials as and when we needed them.
Finally, we acknowledge the help of the late Frank "Red" Rowsome in bringing two very different authors together and making this work possible. This book is dedicated to his memory.
What is Technology Development?
The Nature of Technology Development
There are certain assumptions in any era that are both widely held and at least partially true. One of these is the belief in a correlation between investment in scientific research and national productivity. Science, so the argument would run, generates technologies which alter and enrich the fabric of our lives. What was once slow and largely unconscious has now become a managed process. As Alfred North Whitehead wrote sixty years ago regarding the nineteenth century, “A new method entered into life. In order to understand our epoch, we can neglect all the details of change, such as railways, telegraphs, radios, spinning machines, synthetic dyes [or: transistors, communications satellites, computers, nylon, radar, microelectronics). We must concentrate on the method itself; that is the real novelty ...” (ref. 1.) What has happened since Whitehead wrote these words confirms their truth. Technology, conceived as a technique for mobilizing human energies and for making the most effective use of technical talent, is the dominant force in driving the economies of modern industrial societies.
But the success of modern product- and mission-oriented technological research is, paradoxically, an obstacle to understanding what has made its accomplishments possible. The inevitability with which research concepts appear to lead to operating systems is spurious. On the one hand, there are many urgent social problems for which the requisite research and development support does not exist; on the other, as Nathan Rosenberg observes, the rate of diffusion of new technologies “is intimately linked to the speed with which they come to offer distinct economic advantages over old technologies, which may continue to be improved, or to offer economic advantages for specific uses.” (ref. 2.) The successful development of new technology is almost always difficult and uncertain, depending both on the customer's needs and on the speedy transfer of knowledge between disciplines. How the process of developing new technology occurs in one set of institutions — the mission-oriented Federal laboratory — is the subject of this book.
For our purposes, technology development can be defined thus: It is the systematic use of the knowledge and understanding gained from