Time for a Return of Large Corporation Research Labs?

Time for a Return of Large Corporation Research Labs?

Timothy Taylor 18/05/2019 3

It often takes a number of intermediate steps to move from a scientific discovery to a consumer product. A few decades ago, many larger and even mid-sized corporations spent a lot of money on research and development laboratories, which focused on all of these steps. Some of these corporate laboratories like those at AT&T, Du Pont, IBM, and Xerox were nationally and globally famous. But the R&D ecosystem has shifted, and firms are now much more likely to rely on outside research done by universities or small start-up firms. These issues are discussed in "The changing structure of American innovation: Cautionary remarks for economic growth," by Ashish Arora, Sharon Belenzon,  Andrea Patacconi, and Jungkyu Suh, presented at conference on  "Innovation Policy and the Economy 2019," held on on on April 16, 2019, hosted by the National Bureau of Economic Research, and sponsored by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.

On the importance of corporate laboratories much better decades of US productivity growth, they authors note:

From the early years of the twentieth century up to the early 1980s, large corporate labs such as AT&T's Bell Labs, Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center, IBM's Watson Labs, and DuPont's Purity Hall were responsible for some of the most consequential inventions of the century such as the transistor, cellular communication, graphical user interface, optical bers, and a host of synthetic materials such as nylon, neoprene, and cellophane.

But starting in the 1980s, firms began to rely more on universities and on start-ups to do their R&D. Here's one of many examples, the closing of the main DuPont research laboratory: 

A more recent example is DuPont's closing of its Central Research & Development lab in 2016. Established in 1903, DuPont Central R&D served as a premiere lab on par with the top academic chemistry departments. In the 1960s, the central R&D unit published more articles in the Journal of the American Chemical Society than MIT and Caltech combined. However, in the 1990s, DuPont's attitude toward research changed as the company started emphasizing business potential of research projects. After a gradual decline in scientifi c publications, the company's management closed the Experimental Station as a central research facility for the firm after pressure from activist investors in 2016.

The pattern shows up in broader trends. The authors write that "the number of publications per firm fell at a rate of 20% per decade from 1980 to 2006 for R&D performing American listed firms." Business-based R&D as a share of total R&D peaked back in the 1990s, and has been falling since then. The share of business R&D which is "research," as opposed to "development," has been falling, too.

The authors tell the story of how so much research was based in corporations, or shared by corporations and universities, for the first sis or seven seven decades of the 20th century, and how the shift to a greater share of research happening universities took place. One big change was the Bayh-Dole act of 1980 (citations omitted):

Perhaps the most widely commented on reform of this era is the Bayh-Dole Patent and Trademark Amendments Act of 1980, which allowed the results of federally funded university research to be owned and exclusively licensed by universities. Since the postwar period, the federal government had been funding more than half of all research conducted in universities and owned the rights to the fruits of such research, totaling in 28,000 patents. However, only a few of these inventions would actually make it into the market. Bayh-Dole was meant to induce industry to develop these underutilized resources by transferring property rights to the universities, which were now able to independently license at the going market rate.

As universities took on more research, corporations backed off. Here are a couple of examples: 

In 1979, GE's corporate research laboratory employed 1,649 doctorates and 15,555 supporting staff, while IBM employed 1,900 staff and 1,300 doctorate holders. The comparable figures in 1998 for GE was 475 PhDs supported by 880 professional staff, and 1,200 doctorate holders for IBM. Indeed, rms whose sales grew by 100% or higher between 1980 and 1990 published 20.6 fewer scienti c articles per year. This contrast between sales growth and publications drop persists into the next two decades: rms that doubled in sales between 1990 and 2000 published 12.0 fewer articles. Publications dropped by 13.3 for such fast growth firms between 2000 and 2010.

A common pattern seems to be that the number of researchers and scientific papers is falling at a number of firms, but the number of patents at these same firms has been steadily rising.  Firms are putting less emphasis on the research, and more on development that can turn into well-defined intellectual property. This pattern seems to hold (mostly) across big information technology and computer firms. The pharmaceutical and biotech firms offer an exception of an industry that has continued to publish research--probably because published research is important in regulatory approval for many of their products. 

Overall, the new innovation ecosystem exhibits a deepening division of labor between universities that specialize in basic research, small start-ups converting promising new findings into inventions, and larger, more established firms specializing in product development and commercialization. Indeed, in a survey of over 6,000 manufacturing- and service-sector firms in the U.S. ... 49% of the innovating firms between 2007 and 2009 reported that their most important new product originated from an external source.

But in this new eco-system of innovation, has something been lost? The authors argue that as businesses have outsourced R&D, it has contributed to the sustained sluggish pace of US productivity growth. They write: 

Spinoffs, startups, and university licensing offices have not fully filled the gap left by the decline of the corporate lab. Corporate research has a number of characteristics that make it very valuable for science-based innovation and growth. Large corporations have access to signi ficant resources, can more easily integrate multiple knowledge streams, and their research is directed toward solving specifi c practical problems, which makes it more likely for them to produce commercial applications. University research has tended, more so than corporate research, to be curiosity-driven rather than mission-focused. It has favored insight rather than solutions to specifi c problems, and partly as a consequence, university research has required additional integration and transformation to become economically useful. This is not to deny the important contributions that universities and small rms make to American innovation. Rather, our point is that large corporate labs may have distinct capabilities, which have proved to be difficult to replace. Further, large corporate labs may also generate signi ficant positive spillovers, in particular by spurring high-quality scienti fic entrepreneurship.

It's not clear how to encourage a resurgence of corporate research labs. Companies and their investors seem happy with the current division of R&D labor. But from a broader social perspective, the growing separation of companies from the research on which they rely suggests that the gap between scientific research and consumer products is growing, along with the the possibility that economically valuable innovations are falling into that gap and never coming into existence.


Those interested in this argument might also want to check "The decline of science in corporate R&D," written by Ashish Arora, Sharon Belenzon, and Andrea Patacconi, published in Strategic Management (2018, vol. 39, pp.  3–32).

For those with an interest in the broader subject of US innovation policy, here's the full list of papers presented at the April 2019 NBER conference:

A version of this article first appeared on Conversable Economist

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  • Stuart McGowan

    The best ideas live outside of your organisation.

  • Jonathan Healey

    Status quo only works for so long, and if your doors open, you should keep innovating.

  • Kristina Bell

    There’s usually no shortage of good ideas being thrown around about how to improve your business but you need money to make it happen.

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Timothy Taylor

Global Economy Guru

Timothy Taylor is an American economist. He is managing editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, a quarterly academic journal produced at Macalester College and published by the American Economic Association. Taylor received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Haverford College and a master's degree in economics from Stanford University. At Stanford, he was winner of the award for excellent teaching in a large class (more than 30 students) given by the Associated Students of Stanford University. At Minnesota, he was named a Distinguished Lecturer by the Department of Economics and voted Teacher of the Year by the master's degree students at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. Taylor has been a guest speaker for groups of teachers of high school economics, visiting diplomats from eastern Europe, talk-radio shows, and community groups. From 1989 to 1997, Professor Taylor wrote an economics opinion column for the San Jose Mercury-News. He has published multiple lectures on economics through The Teaching Company. With Rudolph Penner and Isabel Sawhill, he is co-author of Updating America's Social Contract (2000), whose first chapter provided an early radical centrist perspective, "An Agenda for the Radical Middle". Taylor is also the author of The Instant Economist: Everything You Need to Know About How the Economy Works, published by the Penguin Group in 2012. The fourth edition of Taylor's Principles of Economics textbook was published by Textbook Media in 2017.


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