Skip to Content


Engines of Tomorrow: How the World’s Best Companies Are Using Their Research Labs to Win the Future

In 1990, the prevailing sense among technology watchers was that U.S. industrial research was in trouble, and that somebody had better do something about it quick. Nervous about Japanese competition in critical areas, democrats led a move to allocate $100 million for the Advanced Technology Program, 10 times more than President Bush had requested for the next fiscal year. Rejecting the administration’s largely hands-off industrial policy, the House passed the measure by more than 3 to 1.

How things change. In computers, communications, biotech and other key technology areas, America has surged to the front of the pack while Japanese industrial growth has stagnated. The real credit for the turnaround goes to the big companies such as General Electric, AT&T and Hewlett-Packard that downsized and restructured their research labs in the early 1990s, shifting resources formerly squandered on basic research toward meeting the technology needs of real-world customers. That’s according to Robert Buderi, a former editor at Business Week and a TR contributing writer, in his new book Engines of Tomorrow.

What Buderi heard in hundreds of interviews at dozens of companies was that their research labs had lost relevance and accountability, pumping out scientific papers and even Nobel Prizes-but contributing little to the corporate bottom line. Sometime between Sputnik and the breakup of the Soviet Union, industry
leaders had developed an unquestioning faith in the power of basic science to drive technological innovation. As Buderi shows in two excellent chapters on the history of industrial research, this faith was partly justified; it took only a handful of brilliant chemists and physicists to give birth to the German chemical and pharmaceutical powerhouses in the 1880s, for example. But this kind of research had been resultsdriven. During the Cold War, by contrast, the government and corporate spending lavished on research freed many scientists to ignore product development.

Buderi’s remaining chapters detail how IBM, Siemens, Bell Labs, GE and other industrial giants recognized and rectified this problem.Arno Penzias, the Bell Labs researcher who co-discovered the cosmic background radiation in 1965, exemplifies the change in thinking. As research vice president for the labs in 1989, Penzias realized that “the business units were going to need help, and we were going to have to do something about it.” He pushed through a reorganization that refocused the lab on a few key areas, such as lasers and silicon, and put researchers in closer touch with product developers. The reorganization ultimately led to the formation of Lucent, one of the bull market’s highest-flying technology companies.

Buderi’s narrative is flowing and lucid, and contains just enough detail to satisfy historians without overwhelming lay readers. My only criticism is that Buderi’s writing sometimes falls into the mixed metaphors endemic in the business world. At Bell Labs, he writes, “The dam only broke when a steel-nerved manager went against the grain.” But this is, as they say, a minor quibble. On the dog-eat-dog battlefield of business journalism, Engines of Tomorrow will get a lot of mileage.

Keep Reading

Most Popular

A Roomba recorded a woman on the toilet. How did screenshots end up on Facebook?

Robot vacuum companies say your images are safe, but a sprawling global supply chain for data from our devices creates risk.

A startup says it’s begun releasing particles into the atmosphere, in an effort to tweak the climate

Make Sunsets is already attempting to earn revenue for geoengineering, a move likely to provoke widespread criticism.

10 Breakthrough Technologies 2023

Every year, we pick the 10 technologies that matter the most right now. We look for advances that will have a big impact on our lives and break down why they matter.

These exclusive satellite images show that Saudi Arabia’s sci-fi megacity is well underway

Weirdly, any recent work on The Line doesn’t show up on Google Maps. But we got the images anyway.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.