The December 2022 issue of IEEE Spectrum is here!

Close bar

The State of Research: Where Are We Headed?

Industry and academia have become shortsighted

2 min read
Photo of folders with one labeled "grants".
Photo: iStockphoto

THE INSTITUTEResearch is crucial to the discovery and creation of knowledge. Without it, we would still be riding horses instead of driving cars and would not have surmounted geographical distances by airplane or bridged the communications divide with the advent of the Internet.

Humankind has been through a long history of exploring unknowns. Such exploration is pivotal to building a higher level of civilization. Which is why I’m concerned about the state of research today.

Industry as a whole is now focused on short-term research, often called D&D—design and development—which results in marketable products within a two- to three-year time frame. More often than not, such innovations are regarded as marginal leaps in technologies. Research takes time to culminate, and most breakthroughs come only after a good number of years.

Even the world-famous Bell Labs has moved away from fundamental and applied research. Bell Labs was the most prestigious industry research lab in the world. Now its reputation has diminished with its new vision and goals.Many of its researchers now work at universities. But academia has become shortsighted too. Professors are tasked with many roles: teaching, supervising students, seeking research funding, publishing, and more. They are typically conducting research only on a part-time basis. Moreover, their research will depend on the quality of students they attract. And even so, many of today’s Ph.D. students who plan to work in industry are not focused on long-term research but on product development and even marketing.

So who is now doing the long-term fundamental research that will disrupt the market and drastically improve quality of life? And what role will or should IEEE play in terms of advancing research?

Although IEEE offers conferences, technical meetings, and publications, it does not direct or sponsor research. There is no collective and unified body that promotes the importance of research, not even national science and engineering academies throughout the world.

Perhaps we in the field need to rethink the current situation and seek ways to promote and substantiate research in industry, while at the same time bringing together universities, national research foundations, and national academies worldwide in cultivating and promoting research.

Progress in human civilization is everyone’s responsibility. It is time for us to unite and act.

IEEE Fellow Chai K. Toh is professor of electrical engineering and computer science at National Tsing Hua University, in Hsinchu, Taiwan.

The Conversation (0)

Get unlimited IEEE Spectrum access

Become an IEEE member and get exclusive access to more stories and resources, including our vast article archive and full PDF downloads
Get access to unlimited IEEE Spectrum content
Network with other technology professionals
Establish a professional profile
Create a group to share and collaborate on projects
Discover IEEE events and activities
Join and participate in discussions

Economics Drives Ray-Gun Resurgence

Laser weapons, cheaper by the shot, should work well against drones and cruise missiles

4 min read
In an artist’s rendering, a truck is shown with five sets of wheels—two sets for the cab, the rest for the trailer—and a box on the top of the trailer, from which a red ray is projected on an angle, upward, ending in the silhouette of an airplane, which is being destroyed

Lockheed Martin's laser packs up to 300 kilowatts—enough to fry a drone or a plane.

Lockheed Martin

The technical challenge of missile defense has been compared with that of hitting a bullet with a bullet. Then there is the still tougher economic challenge of using an expensive interceptor to kill a cheaper target—like hitting a lead bullet with a golden one.

Maybe trouble and money could be saved by shooting down such targets with a laser. Once the system was designed, built, and paid for, the cost per shot would be low. Such considerations led planners at the Pentagon to seek a solution from Lockheed Martin, which has just delivered a 300-kilowatt laser to the U.S. Army. The new weapon combines the output of a large bundle of fiber lasers of varying frequencies to form a single beam of white light. This laser has been undergoing tests in the lab, and it should see its first field trials sometime in 2023. General Atomics, a military contractor in San Diego, is also developing a laser of this power for the Army based on what’s known as the distributed-gain design, which has a single aperture.

Keep Reading ↓Show less