The Critical Need for Closer Ties Between Physics and Industry

By Philip J. Wyatt

Editor's Note: This is an expanded version of the Back Page that appears in the print edition. The print version is available as a pdf:  APS News - December 2009.

Dr  Philip Wyatt A web

Philip J. Wyatt
[N. B. A recent Back Page article by former APS President Leo Kadanoff discussed some of the topics addressed here. I fully endorse his insight and suggestions regarding the importance of physics education. However on other topics, we approach them from a different perspective; his from a long and distinguished academic career and mine from a long industrial career. My primary focus is on what I believe is needed to restore and grow the Nation’s standard of living; an area in which I believe physicists will play a most important role.]

The Golden Age for America’s industrial physicists was surely the period from the end of the 2nd WW to about 1980. Looking back to the early 1940s, within a year of Einstein’s famous letter to then President Roosevelt, in which he warned of the imminent dangers of German interest in nuclear fission, our country began its crash program to develop an atomic bomb and the concomitant ability to produce nuclear power. This massive program, code-named the Manhattan Project, immediately recruited every physicist that could help. Within a brief three and a-half years, the Nation not only had its nuclear weapons, but a growing capability to produce power using nuclear reactors.

With the onset of the Cold War, and then Sputnik in 1957, Physics opportunities in the country began to explode. The huge availability of government funds spawned the creation by physicists of new companies and industries. Among the many notable successes were:

Simon Ramo
. During the war, he worked on radar. After the war, he moved to Hughes Aircraft where he worked on guided missile systems with Dean Wooldrich (his brilliant CalTech classmate). In September they jointly resigned, and within a week they formed the Ramo-Wooldridge Corporation (later to become TRW) on September 16, 1953.  Ramo was insistent that his firm hire physicists, hundreds of them. He also emphasized the need for theoretical physicists when he asked for "...the right kind of physicists, the top, theoretical physicists, who were accustomed to doing complex calculations of that type on physical phenomena...."

In 1945 Gabriel Maria Giannini
founded his own company for making aircraft and missile guidance systems. After the concern, Giannini Controls Corporation, went public and expanded, Giannini left in 1961 to establish other companies. He once confided to me that besides Bruno Pontecorvo’s perfidy in conveying atomic secrets to the Soviets, what irked him most (Pontecorvo, Fermi, and Segre, came to the U. S. in the late 1930s) was that he had given the Soviets details of their reactor patent without getting royalties! Giannini, an old friend from Italy, met Fermi upon his arrival in New York and later played a major role in obtaining the U. S. patent (3,971,399, classified until 1955) for Fermi and Szilard’s Neutronic Reactor.

Keeve M. (Kip) Siegel was a professor of Physics at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, MI, and the founder of Conductron Corporation, a high tech producer of electronic equipment which was absorbed by McDonnell Douglas Corporation; KMS Industries and KMS Fusion. KMS Fusion was the first and only private sector company to pursue controlled thermonuclear fusion research through use of laser technology. The KMS Fusion team included some of the top experts in the United States at the time, such as Keith Brueckner, Nobel Prize winner Robert Hofstadter, and Siegel himself. On May 1, 1974, KMS Fusion carried out the world's first successful laser-induced fusion in a deuterium-tritium pellet, the evidence for which was provided by neutron-sensitive nuclear emulsion detectors developed by Hofstadter.

Another Michigan Ph. D. was J. Robert Beyster who, in 1969, raised money to start Science Applications, Inc. (SAI) by investing the proceeds from selling stock he had received from General Atomics, combined with funds raised from the early employees who bought stock in the young enterprise. The company was renamed Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) as it expanded its operations. Initially the company’s focus was on projects for the U.S. government related to nuclear power and weapons effects study programs. SAIC, in turn, spawned dozens of new entrepreneurial companies.

Three other American physicists who developed major firms were Gene Amdahl (a computer architect and hi-tech entrepreneur, chiefly known for his work on mainframe computers at IBM and later his own companies, especially Amdahl Corporation. By 1979 Amdahl Corporation had sold over a US $1 billion of mainframes and had over 6,000 employees worldwide.), Russell Varian (who with his brother Sigurd established Varian Associates the inventors of the Klystron and eventually many other devices and instruments), and Chester Carlson (inventor and founder of Haloid XeroX Corporation).

Literally dozens of other physicists started and managed their own firms during these remarkable years. Many universities expanded their physics faculties to begin granting higher degrees and the larger departments grew rapidly. Physics graduates with Ph.D. degrees had no problem getting jobs in the many industrial labs that sought them. I recall in the 1950s, jobs were so plentiful that grad students in physics could get well paying part time jobs in the summers to help pay for their expenses during their academic years. Of course, in those days,  Ph. D. degrees were granted in two subjects at most physics departments: Nuclear and solid state. Many graduating Ph. D.s went immediately to tenure track positions that were readily available at numerous universities. The concept of a Post doctoral position was virtually unknown. And with each new graduating Ph. D., there were always several industrial jobs waiting.  True, most were in the aerospace field working on Government funded problems involving bombs, guided missiles and rockets, space flight, radar, infrared, etc. Through the unique skills and efforts of physicists, the Nation’s technological base grew rapidly as did its productivity and standard of living.

At one time in the not too distant past, being a physicist was considered a great achievement. They were sought for the highest scientific and managerial positions and always considered bright, affable, and engaging. How times have changed! As the ‘90s were approached, conditions for the profession began to worsen.

The American education and training of its physicists is the best in the world. In the past 21 years, of the 53 Nobel Prizes in Physics awarded, 32 have been to Americans. Not bad for a nation whose quality of math and science education was ranked 43rd by the World Economic Forum Executive Opinion Survey 2006-2007! Physicists historically have led the Nation in providing the direction and many of the innovations needed to build great industries and defense capabilities. In non-government funded areas alone, their achievements have produced many of the key elements of modern electronics, lasers and communications, the genetic code, energy conversion from natural and nuclear sources, etc. Obviously, their basic physics concepts were often refined, accelerated, and reduced to practice by their chemical, engineering, mathematical, and biological colleagues. But the pure raw abilities of physicists in analyzing and solving a vast variety of technical challenges remain unique. Because of their special training, physicists are ideally suited to exploring and solving a broad range of technical problems to which they are exposed for the first time. The basic training of physicists focuses on the interplay between all elements of the problems they address. Their training encourages the investigation of and participation in scientific disciplines often well outside of their fields of specialty. Unfortunately, their place in American industry has been increasingly marginalized in the past few decades.

Our Nation has reached a critical crossroad. During these past two decades, the Country’s manufacturing base has eroded significantly due to massive outsourcing, financial restructuring, unfortunate accidents, thefts of trade secrets, and increased foreign innovation and competition. This continuing erosion has resulted in a corresponding deterioration of the Nation’s standard of living which can only be sustained and improved if we have a strong and growing manufacturing base concomitant with increasing productivity. Since 2001 the United States has run a trade deficit in advanced technology products, a U.S. Census Bureau category that includes new or leading-edge technologies such as biotechnology, life science, optoelectronics, information and communications, electronics, aerospace, and nuclear technology. The United States annually imports $53B more in advanced technology products than it exports. 2001 was the start of the decline of the Nation’s Middle Class that continues unabated. We shall never regain our world economic dominance unless we are able to stop and reverse this accelerating trend. 

It has recently been stated that as long as our Science and Technology develop and grow, the Country will achieve corresponding growth and prosperity. Indeed, on this basis it has been reasoned that even the outsourcing of R&D, now a popular idea, will continue to benefit us by providing these new discoveries more rapidly and at far lower cost. Typical of this concept is a recent article from the New York Times that states: “American innovators–with their world-class strengths in product design, marketing and finance– may have a historic opportunity to convert the scientific know-how from abroad into market gains and profits….” Unfortunately, the article and many like it miss the most important point: without an expanding manufacturing base with increasing productivity that provides expanding job opportunities for its citizens, our Nation’s living standards will continue to deteriorate when such developments are made offshore.

Gregory Tassey of NIST wrote recently: “…When technological advances take place in the foreign industry, manufacturing is frequently located in that country to be near the source of the R&D. The issue of co-location of R&D and manufacturing is especially important because it means the value added from both R&D and manufacturing will accrue to the innovating economy, at least when the technology is in its formative stages. This phenomenon occurs because much of the knowledge produced in the early phases of a technology’s life cycle is tacit in nature and such knowledge transfers most efficiently through personal contact. Intel’s major R&D program in Israel is an example. Collaborative research developed a new architecture for the company’s 64–bit microprocessor, which was followed by Intel’s investment in a $4 billion manufacturing plant near the R&D facility. Thus, an economy that initially controls both R&D and manufacturing can lose the value added first from manufacturing and then R&D in the current technology life cycle – and then first R&D followed by manufacturing in the subsequent technology life cycle. This is the economics of decline….” Our nuclear power industry and the associated development of new reactor designs, for example, were lost many years ago. Indeed, according to Robert Rossner there is no extant manufacturing facility in the country capable of building a containment vessel, let alone a commercial reactor. So many other products with their associated manufacturing infrastructure and employment that began in this country have been lost. A recent review by Harvard Business School professor Gary Pisano and Willy Shih discuss these losses that include TV sets, mobile phones, liquid crystal displays, portable consumer electronics, advanced rechargeable batteries for the automotive sector, hard disk drives, advanced composite materials for consumer products, and compact fluorescent lighting, to name but a few. And many more of our current innovative industries are at risk. These include solid state lighting using LEDs, thin film solar cells, optical communication components, carbon composites for aerospace and wind energy applications, flash memory chips, etc.

Most large manufacturing firms (as well as many smaller ones) in this country, in order to grow and remain competitive, must continually introduce new products, improve their existing products, reduce manufacturing costs, and integrate each new and appropriate technological advance where appropriate as soon as practical. Virtually every such firm with a need to refine its manufactured products and expand for the future (which means, of course, to develop new jobs and products) would do well to consider adding physicists to their staffs. Alternatively, for a period of a few years, they might consider establishing a physics team of a few members reporting directly to the company’s CEO. Many firms already have physicists on their staffs, generally performing specialized R&D, manufacturing, and/or electrooptical functions. Accordingly, these firms can expand such teams immediately.

The number of physicists in our country is quite small, perhaps only about 50,000, but many of these are spending much of their time in dead-end “Waiting-for-Godot” post doctoral positions when they might better be directing their efforts to the Nation’s critical industrial needs. The latest data from AIP show that of those graduating with a Ph. D. degree, almost 70% are engaged in such non-permanent post-doctoral positions, of which 75% are academic with little hope of achieving a permanent academic appointment.  As for the total Ph. D. s graduating, their number, though rising, has yet to equal the numbers graduated in the 1970s. In addition, only 40% of the graduating physics Ph.D.s are U. S. Citizens. This fact means that the number of Americans pursuing a Ph. D. education in physics has fallen precipitously from the levels of the 1960s! While our manufacturing industries are collapsing for lack of the technological innovation these few physicists might provide, we continue to train ever increasing numbers of foreign physicists who have the skills to help their native countries expand and grow through their future efforts.  With current Government restrictions on their domestic employment, many have no choice but to return to their countries of origin.  We must redirect, somehow, our physics resources to the refinement and expansion of the Nation’s manufacturing infrastructure.

Unfortunately, a major disconnect exists between physicists and the industrial arena. No major manufacturing firms in the U. S. have a physicist on their board of directors; nor do such firms have physicists in the top echelons of management. Surprisingly, this is also true for large firms manufacturing highly technical products. Many of these companies have no Ph. D. level directors in any discipline despite the need to be fully aware of all technical developments that may affect their very survival. There is also an insidious element that is apparent in many firms regarding the hiring of physicists per se.  Many technical managers seem to have a fear or distrust of physicists working for them. They consider physicists a little too smart and, therefore, potential competitors for their own status in the company. This unspoken attitude affects the industrial opportunities for physicists to some degree. I spoke recently with a colleague who has an important management position at a major pharmaceutical firm. I asked him if he had any physicists in his group. After some hesitation, he began to explain why such hires would not be appropriate as he and his colleagues considered physicists distant, aloof, nerd-like, and, therefore, not the type of scientist that would “fit in!” This seems to characterize the great change in the public’s impression of our profession since its golden days almost 50 years ago. It is an impression that must be changed, not only for the well-being of physicists in general, but for the Nation as a whole whose very survival as a great democracy will depend critically (in this writer’s opinion) upon the participation of its physicists and their unique skills for building great enterprises.

The recent Back Page lament of Soren Sorenson concerning the terrible reverses the economic meltdown has caused his department is surely shared by most other physics departments in the country. Despite hopes and promises for better Federal support of our academic needs, realistically this will not happen. The Government has far too many obligations for war and investment bankers to have much left over to fund its earlier Congressional commitments including physics.  Some departments with Nobel Laureates and National Academy members will do better than their “lesser” colleagues in obtaining the very limited funds that will eventually become available, but this is neither fair nor helpful to the physics community as a whole.  If we are to increase our physics enrollments and encourage both pure and applied research, a new source of funding must be found. I believe that this must eventually fall on private industry to pitch in each year and fund physics with no strings attached. It will take some time before this occurs, but the various taxing authorities, unable to provide the funds promised to support science, must at the very least provide some form of tax incentives to industrial firms contributing to such endeavors.

Many of the Nation’s physics departments and other departments staffed by physicists should encourage some of their faculty members to take a two or three year sabbatical leave and join the physics staffs of companies wishing to use their skills to strengthen or rebuild their industrial bases. With the expected cutbacks in Federal spending for everything, including scientific research, the physics academic staffs, that already spend far too much of their time writing proposals to compete for Government grants, should help the Nation by joining one of the many companies who really could use their skills to refine their products and introduce the innovations so characteristic of their physics training. In their new industrial positions, the successes of these industrially focused physicists would encourage further enrollments in physics and all related sciences. Meanwhile the Nation’s manufacturing base would be strengthened and rebuilt.

An important mission of APS has been the creation of greater awareness of careers in physics, but far more attention is needed to explore career opportunities in industry. The APS must become more active in encouraging greater interactions with industry. At its inception, FIAP was established to encourage industrial applications of physics. It has become instead a forum for academicians who believe that applied physics is different from other physics and should have a forum dedicated to such perceived differences. In the 1959 March Meeting, there were 25 invited papers from academia, 14 from industry, and 5 from National Labs. By 2009 these numbers were 695, 71, and 79! Thus the academic-to-industrial ratio increased from about double to 10-fold. Of the 12 Fellows appointed by FIAP in 2009, only one was awarded to an industrial physicist! In order to help our Nation in this critical period and improve the quality of life for our physicists in general, the APS should encourage immediately the establishment of a Division of Industrial Physics, or redirect by fiat the focus of FIAP from Industrial & Applied Physics to Industrial Applications of Physics. Under this new focus, such division or forum should undertake to

1)    Encourage and expand the application of physics to the Nation’s industrial and, especially, its manufacturing base.
2)    Encourage greater interactions between industry and academic physics providing thereby additional opportunities for funding from industrial sources, faculty sabbatical opportunities in industry, and increased the awareness of graduate students of employment and career opportunities in industry.
3)    Increase the awareness of graduate students of the employment and career opportunities in industry.
4)    Encourage greater enrollments in undergraduate physics and engineering physics curricula.
5)    Encourage physicists, especially in academia, to invent and learn how to reduce their inventions to patents.
6)    Interact more with the Forums on Education (Fed), Physics and Society (FPS), and Graduate Student Affairs (FGA).
7)    Increase the awareness of industrial physics opportunities by the Executive Committees and, thereby, the membership of other APS divisions with strong applications for Industrial Physics.
8)    Support an AIP publication to be called Industrial Physics.
9)    Encourage industrial firms to offer post doctoral positions to new Ph.D.’s that would be developed within their firms.

In closing, I recall vividly a meeting I attended many years ago after I had just joined a new company whose physics group was headed up by Bernie Lippman (a great industrial physicist of Lippman-Schwinger scattering theory fame, among others). My own thesis director Alex Green (one of the great nuclear physicists of that era) had taken off a few years from academia to head up a position similar to Lippman’s at Convair in San Diego. Green asked Lippman how he could make such large salary offers to the same young physicists he was trying to hire. Bernie leaned back against a wall with a great big smile on his face as he said “I am just trying to restore the dignity to our profession!” Yes, the salaries and life expectations of physicists should be among the highest in a Nation whose standard of living should also be the highest. Let’s try to achieve that.

Postscript: In 2008, the American Institute of Physics released its Final Report on the History of Physicists in Industry. This extensive study discusses in considerable detail some of the history of physicists in industry. It seems focused on the “hired hand” physicists and their management. Indeed, “…the results of the study provide general guidelines for understanding and documenting the work of the physicists at the 15 companies [used as exemplars in this study]….” Those 15 companies were chosen on the basis of their being the largest employers of physicists at the time the study began in 2003. No words about physicists as leaders, nor a single word of the history of the companies founded by physicists, are found anywhere in this 69 page document. The evolution of the management of the “hired hands” is well documented over the recent two decades. It is not a pretty picture as exemplified by the statement: “…For the innovation process to be effective, nearly all of the company’s programs need to be involved, including R&D, marketing, and production. This in turn has increasingly moved control for R&D up the corporate ladder to the CEO and other top executives, resulting in less autonomy for individual workers.…”

Who are these CEOs that define the work their physicists will do? Although some specific names were listed, no attempt was made to determine what (if any) technical training such CEOs might have had. Most had none! And as if that was not enough, one physicist is quoted “……from the physicist researcher to the Chief Technology Officer, we were told that research was measured solely by whether or not it created ‘value for shareholders’…” The erosion of America’s manufacturing base, even in the presence of physicists, was well explained by the further statement “…Globalization brought with it increased pressure to build value for the shareholder, and the drive towards increased efficiencies resulted in a transformation of the business model. One might now set standards for components but would outsource the manufacturing of those components—which might be used in a wide variety of products—to companies that could build those components most efficiently. In the new global competitive environment, basic research was no longer cost effective so it too was outsourced.…”

A great amount of attention is devoted to the Bell Labs whose relation to typical industrial physics is hard to understand. For most of their existence, the Bell Labs represented an unimaginable sinecure for those fortunate enough to work there.  In this environment, certainly some of the most remarkable scientific discoveries were made and subsequently exploited. Nevertheless, the focus of the report on such utopias doesn’t do justice to much of the work performed by industrial physicists.

The conclusion of the report’s first section, bearing the title of the report itself, is well worth reading. The authors conclude that their “…survey of physicists in industry suggests that industry has not yet arrived at, and may never arrive at, a consensus on how to conduct its research or the optimum relationship among science, technology, and business interests. …” Among their most telling statements were “…When we began the study, we assumed that the professional point of reference for industrial physicists would be the larger physics community.… We were surprised to find that most of the interviewees concentrated instead almost exclusively on physicists or other scientists in their own companies….” This, of course, is a consequence of the lack of significant APS focus on industrial physics.

Despite the enormous changes undergoing the industrial physics community, industrial physicists today have a far more daunting task than just helping their companies survive; they must help directly to reverse the deterioration of the Nation’s manufacturing base. Instead of focusing on the creation of value for the shareholders, industrial physicists must take the lead in restoring the Nation’s industrial base. It will be very hard work, but intellectually and emotionally stimulating.

Philip Wyatt is the 2009 recipient of the APS Prize for Industrial Applications of Physics and the founder and CEO of an industrial developer and manufacturer of analytical instruments sold in over 50 countries. Of the 70 plus total members of its staff, there are 8 physicists of whom 6 have PhDs.

APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: Alan Chodos

December 2009 (Volume 18, Number 11)

APS News Home

Issue Table of Contents

APS News Archives

Contact APS News Editor

Articles in this Issue
March Meeting to Convene in Oregon
Council Keeps Current Climate Change Statement
Members Bombard Councilors with Messages on Climate Change
New APS Blog Tackles Science and Public Policy
Greenberg, Zhuang Share 2009 Apker Award
APS Launches Slide Shows for Undergrads
Accelerators Are Ubiquitous but Unsung
Gallagher Confirmed as NIST Director
Laser Science Meeting Features Beetles and Fast X-Rays
DNP Holds Third Joint Meeting with Japan
Letters to the Editor
The Back Page
Members in the Media
Inside the Beltway
The Education Corner
This Month Physics History
Zero Gravity: The Lighter Side of Science
Topical Groups