William O. Baker



Arizona State University

Tempe, Arizona

January 1988

Excellence in research and development, particularly in industry, has rather different parameters than the usual qualities of excellence in scholarship, in learning, in art, in the humanities, and even in business and public affairs. Namely, it has to be mastered and applied in an environ in which speed of discovery, recognition of broad new outlines of knowledge, rapid and early innovation, and record of findings are dominant features. Thus, there is nominally neither the time nor frequently the methodology for the most refined and exact determination of such typical matters as circuit properties, chemical kinetics, mechanics of materials or the countless other basic elements which underlie excellence in technology. The struggle for priority in patenting, publication and proprietorship inevitably conflicts with the time and tasks intrinsic to the deepest excellence of probing nature. Fortunately, academic traditions have a valuable modulating incidence, since therein, the continuing and repetitive quality of teaching often favors pursuit of excellence in accumulation and selection of basic knowledge, and also of the experimental exercises typical of laboratory sciences. Therefore, it is particularly welcome to have an occasion to speak in celebration of the growing and distinguished record of this university. For it is found over and over that the influence on excellence in subsequent careers in engineering and science, in industry, government and even other academic work, is set in the years of pre- and post-graduate study. Here, committed faculties do take the time to show what diligence and elegance can do for research and development. They illustrate also how the great leaders of our Twentieth Century science and engineering did have the “infinite capacity for taking pains” long ago defined as genius. They have also, however, become good exponents of the surging condition that genius nowadays, with the large corpus of knowledge which modern engineering and science occupy, requires also education in depth. Thus, even the most talented short-cutters, the true geniuses of earlier years, will generally find the educational experience nowadays an essential preparation.

So we have said that excellence in industrial science and technology has to start early, preferably, in fact, before college. This we have tried to bring out in our work of the National Commission on Excellence in Education in the report “A Nation at Risk…” But then, assuming the essential condition that there is this preparation, appropriate pursuit of excellence is still a risky course in industry, for the reasons of haste and competition and the nature of invention and innovation. Some other principles, however, do emerge over these decades of particularly half a century, when industrial and Federal institutional R&D has become so large a part of the expectations of our people and the security and socio-economic progress of our nation. High, or perhaps highest among these principles, is of course, the requirement that the environ of the laboratory challenge the best mental strength of its staff. No one else knows as well as you all, who identify and cultivate intelligence, how fragile is the social and psychological, as well as economic milieu in which it flourishes. Thus one must, above all, convince the members of the staff, from the bench assistants to the laboratory director, that the quality of work is dominant. The role of the individual is assuring that quality is preeminent, so leadership must assure that the bench assistant has, on that basis, full opportunity to become the laboratory director. This mobilization of the very best ideals and aspirations of the young recruit to industrial research and development, and those of the oldest pre-retirement, experienced staff member, is of course, the crucial thrust for excellence. Examples of the work and career of the late William G. Pfann, illustrate this prime principle superbly.

Now, obviously, there are other and manifold factors in even the rudiments of the environ and the direction and the management and themes of the laboratory, as we have already noted. But a few more principles do stand out. One is that time must be taken to keep every member of the staff, and the laboratory as a whole, constantly aware and in touch with progress in the rest of world science and engineering. Now, as you know, the volume of recorded knowledge in these fields is doubling every six to seven years. There are more than 100,000 identified journals and periodicals in the world on these subjects, and the language barrier alone, with the Japanese, for instance, is formidable. So the organization of the laboratory must spend more time in creating a hierarchy of access to the important new currents of thought and discovery. These currents are fortunately vastly more limited, more finite than the total huge volume of recorded new knowledge and experience. So the laboratory leadership, augmented by task forces and constant interaction with the most brilliant of the junior and senior staffs, must take particular pains to identify where the main currents, where the hierarchical structures are, and to bring those ever in touch. This, of course, requires publication from the laboratory, so that the mainstreams of learning and insight will be experienced firsthand.

It was not accident that the first report of the present Science Advisory Committee, after it was taken in to the White House by President Eisenhower, was on the production and dissemination of the scientific and technical literature. When we were called, in a time of severe, grim threat to our freedom and security, to make science and engineering new bases for national policy, we moved first of all, (even before the next report entitled “Strengthening American Science”) to establish an information policy and practice. This action was exemplified with the Science Information Council and a host of related activities in the Federal and independent sector. They stood for the theme that immediate and enduring contact with the results of others, the flow of new ideas, was basic for excellence.

We can report that while our nation apparently still leads the world in this process, much remains to be done in both industry and universities. Dr. Alvin Weinberg and I, co-authors of the second report on literature, and bibliography of science and information issued by the President's Science Advisory Committee, have recently undertaken to generate a new phase of this work, since we find it is now languishing. Nevertheless, one's other early injections of plans for automation of the computer handling of information proposed in a different report to the Engineers Joint Council of 1962 entitled “Nation's Needs in Engineering Research,” also initiated work whose achievement is well begun.

We believe also that the spread of on-line information systems is going far beyond the conventional data bases, into actual bibliographic information and probably almost real-time exchanges between laboratories and centers specializing in a field.

But clearly one cannot expect the laboratory to have its personnel reading or listening or looking at somebody else's findings all the time. So these hierarchical principles of focus, of effort, and recognition of what basic questions and problems really are, must quickly be and extensively be extended to the main business of the venture.

Yet another pervasive principle for excellence, which provides the base for selectivity of programs and hierarchy of pertinent information, is the application of systems engineering and systems research. A systems characterization in industrial programs is, in our view, indispensable. However, this has been slow to take hold broadly, since the competitive specialization of industries has discouraged recognizing their engineering and science as part of a broad systems operation. Thus, although automobiles are part of transportation, as are railroads, neither has emphasized the systems technology on which their products depend. In automobiles, the roads, fuels and traffic circumstances have had little attention, whereas in the railroads, conversely the vehicles, propulsion, efficiency of moving parts, and human factors have been relatively undeveloped. In the case of pharmaceuticals, as the newspapers report nearly daily, the values of a particular therapy of a very specific patented drug have overwhelmed the responsibilities for total physiological impact and even systemic qualities, such as transport, to the site of therapeutic action, time of assimilation, etc. However, one should not pick these relatively advanced industries for special concern. For the other ones which are expiring around us, such as steel and other primary metals, consumer electronics, certain textiles, etc. have been equally restrained in application of systems concepts to their research and development.

But nowadays, more than ever, with excellence dependent on high selectivity and understanding of what special science would underlie the engineering and technology of a whole industry, it is essential for the leadership of the laboratories to understand personally and to translate for their top corporate management on the one hand, and their gifted and well-trained R&D staff on the other, the definitive systems qualities of their business. Modern computer facilities in which our newly educated coworkers, as well as reeducated colleagues, will be more and more expert, is a most promising path for enhancing systems specifications and understanding. Particularly, the computer information handling allows large-scale correlations of publications and patent contents in a technical systems area. Thus, the given industry can see how its subjects are being developed and pursued elsewhere. Equally important, modeling of the system with many trial and hypothetical conditions of technical as well as operational variables will increasingly allow both the planners and analysts to see how the system really operates. In addition, some parameters controlling systems frontiers can be readily applied in such modeling, and also current experimental results put in to observe long-term trends and perturbations. In the field of information handling and communications, the electromagnetic spectrum still provides a strong and useful guide, full of challenges and opportunities. We should note, however, that the bioscientific regimes, while not, we believe, contradictingly, principles of electromagnetism in any way, may apply signaling and message processing in strikingly different ways than our culture has been evolving in digital and high speed analog methodologies. In other words, to maintain excellence, there has also to be a marked humility and constant reminding that our present concepts are crutches more than creeds.

So altogether it appears that the pursuit of excellence in research and development is good for business as well as for progress in learning and in human fulfillment. The steady infusion of science into all elements of technology and engineering, and the new educational themes accompanying this, are more exacting in achieving and applying new knowledge for commerce and industry, than was even imagined in the upsurge of innovation, starting about four decades ago. Thus we see a worldwide commitment to surpass and to excel in which our nation must continue to take a lead.