From the Archives: “Basic Research: An Industrial Responsibility”

George B. Kistiakowsky
George B. Kistiakowsky, photo credit: Wikipedia

By George B. Kistiakowsky, Special Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, The White House, Washington, DC, 1960

(The following throwback article appeared in Research Management, the precursor to IRI’s award-winning journal Research-Technology Management, in the summer of 1960 and is a transcript of remarks delivered by Mr. Kistiakowsky at the dedication of the Esso Research Center in Florham Park, New Jersey, on November 5, 1959. Aside from the reference to the Soviet Union, the relevance of these remarks to today is remarkable.)

BEGIN TRANSCRIPT: It is a happy occasion for me to participate in so felicitous an event as the dedication of a new research center. To those of us accustomed to the austere atmosphere of university laboratories, facilities provided by industrial organizations seem magnificent indeed. It is typical of the forward-looking spirit of American enterprise that the Esso Research Corporation should crown its already excellent facilities with this splendid new center.

Possibly by intent, the inauguration of this center coincides with the centennial of the petroleum industry. It has been a century of dramatic progress in which the increase in production of crude oil—from 2,000 barrels in 1859 to 2.5 billion barrels currently—is only a vague yardstick. A much more realistic measure of the impact of the oil industry upon industrial growth is to be found in the increase of our use of mechanical energy. This has multiplied 185 times in ten decades. Machines now do 99% of the work in this country, while in the 1850’s only about 35% of all work in the United States was accomplished by machine. The rest was done by men, women, children, and draft animals. The effects of the petroleum industry on the growth of the automotive and aviation industries are infinite and, of course, too obvious to mention.

In the last 25 years, petroleum has taken on new significance as a source of synthetic organic chemicals. Important industries have grown up around the production of detergents, synthetic rubber, synthetic fibers, and plastics. Out of these flows an unending stream of products of bewildering variety. In our households today is a host of colorful and useful items which would have been quite unfamiliar not only to our grandparents, but to our parents as well.

The growth of the petroleum and petrochemical industries is typical of American enterprise and initiative. The growth of the industries owes a great deal to bold risks, effective management, and the application of modern industrial techniques; they also owe much to research. I refer not only to the large-scale technology fostered today by most major industries, but more specifically to the basic work of such men as Sabatier, Staudinger, Whitemore, Hinshelwood, and a host of others.

Several years ago, one of your distinguished executives was quoted as saying of your company’s research and development activities: “We’re really just another operating department, except our job is to turn out a product called technology. The product is worth no more than it can be bought for on the open market.” I would not disagree with this statement, provided it means what it must mean to other departments of Standard of New Jersey. I trust that it would be understood in the spirit of the courageous world-wide gambles of your parent company; of the long-lasting and comprehensive geological explorations in the wildest and most inaccessible parts of the world; of huge investments in drilling wells, many of which necessarily turn out to be dry. For a reason that a simple scientist cannot fathom, your parent company chooses this path rather than waiting for others to do all the exploratory work and then buying the product as it flows from other peoples’ wells. What, then, is the equivalent approach of an “operating department” turning out technology?

Such an approach lies in the careful assembly of a bold research staff whose active minds pioneer the frontiers of science in the same spirit that your geophysicists and geochemists search for new wells. It is the eager and exploring minds that will convert these magnificent structures from the brick and mortar that they are into the living entity selling technology to your parent company at less than market price and, in the process, I must emphasize, contributing to American scientific leadership. In this respect, also, you resemble an operating department, which consists not of ships or drilling rigs or refinery equipment, but of men who have been given the right tools and the kind of leadership that results in a job magnificently done.

I am not an expert in the oil business, but I do know that profits do not lie in geophysical explorations and oil-well drillings in new locations—they are made when wells can be added where flowing wells have already produced the pools of black gold, and through the expert management of established resources. And yet your parent company continues to push ahead into new and hitherto unexplored locations. For research and development the analogy lies in the fact that, although immediate profits result from process development, from clever engineering, and from product improvement and controls, the enlightened management insures [sic] also that you may explore the unknown by basic research to insure long-range progress.

Of course, if you wish to see me hoisted on my own petard, you might inquire why it would not be better for an industrial company to wait until somebody else turns up new discoveries and then pick up what looks good industrially and concentrate on the rapid conversion to profitable processes. Occasionally, no doubt, this is just the right procedure, and many companies have undoubtedly profited by following it. But consider what would happen if all industries adopted this attitude as the standard operating procedure. Not only would the national effort in basic research be seriously diminished, but industries would lose competence to select the right products of basic research for development.  I submit that industry has no choice better than to continue a vigorous basic research program, if you want to be sure at all times that you will be truly first; that in key technological areas you will be the undisputed leader instead of being part of the crowd that fights for the left-overs.

Such a program would include not only the pursuit of research in your own laboratories but support and encouragement of research that is carried on in the colleges and universities. There are disinterested and altruistic reasons for supporting university research; more important, there are also very practical ones. It is impossible to predict in advance which of the leads that basic research uncovers may have significant economic potentialities. One might not suppose, for example, that the botanical studies of the toxicity of a common western plant known as locoweed would result in a significant tool for mineral prospecting. Nevertheless, studies made by a Columbia University botanist led to the discovery that the toxicity of this plant is attributable to its large uptake of selenium. Selenium is found near uranium, and now geobotanists can furnish important leads to the discovery of this and other important metals; for research has indicated that there are clear relationships between certain types of vegetation and their chemical environments.

Geobotany and the still more recent field of polynology [sic], the study of fossil pollens, are extensions of the work in geochemistry, which industry has been applying successfully to the problem of prospecting. The present applications of these sciences would not have been possible, however, except for the very basic work done earlier and being continued at the present time.

The work of Dr. Joseph A. Cushman is now well-known to the oil industry, but it is unlikely that, had the industry been calculatingly seeking a promising scientist to support, it would have selected a micropaleontologist engaged in the study of fossilized shells of the single-celled marine animals known as Foraminifera. Dr. Cushman, of course, did not undertake his studies of these small creatures with any view to the possible economic importance of his work, but now these minute fossils are used in industry in identification of rock strata; this has applications in determining sites of water wells and, on a much wider scale, in the location of oil-bearing strata.

Much of the petroleum industry depends nowadays on the use of catalysts, and yet one does not need to search far back in history to discover when basic research into the nature of heterogenous [sic] catalysis by such men as Sabatier, Ipatieff, Taylor, and Natta, stimulated industrial applications.

What would the petroleum industry do now if it did not have such research, analytical, and process control tools as the mass spectrometers and NMR and IR instruments? Even the first of these was born less than 50 years ago, from the experiments of J.J. Thompson on the trajectories of gaseous ions in electric and magnetic fields. The nuclear magnetic resonance and infrared instruments are much younger still, but neither Purcell and Block, when they demonstrated nuclear magnetic resonance, nor many people working on infrared spectra, were motivated by the potential industrial applications of their discoveries.

Where would our society be without synthetic polymers, and what fraction of the petrochemical industry would be in existence? Yet, one need not search long to discovery the origins of all synthetic polymers in basic research laboratories of Staudinger, Carothers, Ziegler, and so many others.

These examples and others like them lead to an important generalization. We are experiencing a new revolution, rather than merely an accelerated phase of the old Industrial Revolution. C.P. Snow, in his Rede Lecture at Cambridge, draws a clear distinction between the two. He characterizes the Industrial Revolution as the gradual introduction of machines, the rising employment of men and women in factories, the shift in population from agriculture to manufacture and distribution which began in the eighteen century and extended to the early twentieth century:

“Out of it grew another change, closely related to the first but far more deeply scientific, far quicker, and probably far more prodigious in its result—the application of real science to industry, no longer hit-and-miss, no longer the ideas of odd ‘inventors.’”

He observes that dating the second change is largely a matter of taste and he himself places it at the time when atomic particles were first used industrially. He declares:

“I believe, the industrial society of electronic, atomic energy, automation, is in cardinal respects different in kind from any that has gone before, and will change the world much more. It is this transformation that, in my view, is entitled to the name of ‘scientific revolution.’ This is the material basis of our lives; or more exactly, the social plasma of which we are a part, and we know almost nothing about it.”

Two points might be made here. The first is that we need to take actives steps to see that people do develop knowledge and understanding of this “social plasma” of which we are a part, and the second is that our national research and development effort should nourish and enrich it.

Experiences in the position which I am privileged to hold make me very much aware of these problems and also place emphasis on certain aspects of them. I refer to our competition with the Soviet Union which covers a broad front, from our efforts to obtain the most effective modern weapons to insure [sic] our ability to deter and, if necessary, to resist aggression, to our efforts in maintaining intellectual, scientific, and technologic superiority and so insuring the willing acceptance of our leadership by the free world. The deadly earnestness of this competition should make all of us concerned about every technological area in which the Russians are conspicuously advanced; for instance, geochemistry and oceanography—indeed the entire field of geophysics—or the development of very large rocket boosters needed for the more spectacular aspects of outer space exploration. Whenever progress by others in such areas has an impact on our security, we, as a nation, have no safe alternative but to make a determined effort to overcome the lead. However, as a scientist who has had some experience in both basic and applied research, I believe that, except in areas critical for our national security, it is both illogical and unsound for us to chart our own technological course on the basis of what the Russians are doing. In terms of the total technology, the two nations are at quite different levels of development and hence the requirements for applied research, engineering, and other aspects of technology are correspondingly different. As far as basic research is concerned, its full support and encouragement are important to any nation that would hold its own in the scientific revolution that characterizes our age. To the leader of the free world, such support is urgent and indispensable.

American industry has here a dual responsibility: the development of a basic research program that sustains the industry and insures its growth as well as the sharing in the enlightened support of a broader body of scholarly research outside industry, which is equally indispensable for industrial progress.

My observations on basic research in industrial laboratories suggest that it is sort of a tender flower, apt to wither on the stem, unless management takes good care to nourish it. The type of organization that is appropriate for development and engineering seems to malfunction when applied to basic research. Let’s look again at an operating department. I have no doubt that precise procedures can be developed for the operation of a well-established venture, say, a refinery that is just like several others already on steam; but can standard operating procedure be written for the oil exploration team that is venturing into the middle of the Sahara Desert? Should not a great deal of initiative be left to the leader? The situation with respect to basic research is similar. You have to find the right [people]; you have to give them the right tools; you have to tell them generally where to head; but you must let them use their own judgment thereafter, and you must not give up if the first wells turn out to be dry.

I seem to have again tried to draw analogies between a research and development organization and an operating department. This is fun, but it cannot be carried through completely. A research organization differs from an operating department at least in one very major detail, and that is the extent to which an R&D establishment is dependent upon outside inspiration and creative efforts. You have to engage in basic research because otherwise you are certain to become second-rate, but you cannot isolate yourself from the mainstream of science and you must make full use of it, regardless of its source. Moreover, since your own success depends upon a steady influx of first-rate scientists with the proper kind of training, it is to your advantage to insure this influx. The only way I know of accomplishing this is to support scientific education and research as an essential part of your own mission.

Reference: Kistiakowsky, G. B. (1960). “Basic Research: An Industrial Responsibility.” Research Management, Vol. III, No. 2 (Summer), pp. 3-10.


For current data on basic research in the U.S. in 2015:

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