In praise of monopoly

When I was in graduate school in the eighties, the dream job if you were in theoretical high energy physics or pure math was probably the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton but for everyone else it was Bell Labs, on which Jon Gertner has a tribute in the New York Times today.  Unfortunately for me, I never had the chance to go.  Also just as I was finishing my PhD, the AT&T monopoly was being broken up and the slow decline of Bell labs had begun.  Gertner points out that while we glorify silicon valley these days as the hot bed of innovation, it stilll doesn’t compare with how Bell Labs changed the world.  The NIH may be the closest thing in the US right now (and it may not last) in terms of size and freedom to pursue risky projects but we’re scattered over a large campus and it can easily be months between talking to colleagues in other buildings even though it would be of great benefit to interact with them more often.  

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5 thoughts on “In praise of monopoly

  1. I read the NYT article today, too, and immediately wondered whether the kind of collaboration that went on at Bell Labs goes on at NIH today. Some NIH buildings/labs are designed to be collaborative spaces where scientists can mingle and share ideas through their casual interactions. But are scientists from different groups REALLY interacting? I used to work for a university/medical center that designed a cancer center to have open labs that were supposed to foster collaboration. There was even afternoon tea and cookies in a central area. Researchers would come out of their labs and mingle. But it seemed that people socialized within their own lab groups and didn’t seek out “strangers.” Kind of like a high school cafeteria, where people seek out their own friends to sit with. Interesting that Bell Labs seemed to have the collaboration environment figured out.

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  2. It’s funny whenever I hear the word “innovation” used by the media and people talk about Google, Facebook, or Apple — I silently laugh. They all pale in comparison to the work Bell Labs did in its history. Transistor, laser, UNIX, etc. The list goes on and on …

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  3. I can only comment from my own experience at NIH. What I like best about it is that labs are mostly small so that people are pretty open and collaborative as opposed to some med schools where PIs tend to have large empires. There are also interest groups that host seminars. However, the campus is really big and I often skip seminars if they are in distant buildings or watch them on video in my office. It is also not that easy to know what goes on in other institutes unless you make a concerted effort. It would be nice if there were more opportunities for serendipitous interactions.

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  4. It’s amazing what a difference the physical space makes. I thought a five-minute walk between buildings at the NIH was a difficult barrier to conversation, but now that I’ve left, it has begun to seem downright cozy. I’ve found that the 30-minute bus ride between my math and biology mentors seems almost insurmountable in terms of getting the three of us in one place at one time. The cultures of the medical and mathematical community already seem worlds apart and the physical distance just adds to that. I have no idea how people manage to sustain effective collaborations at even farther distances. My current solution? I talked my way into having a desk at both campuses and now coordinate my choice of locale with the talks being given. It sort of works but makes the logistics of having all my books and papers in the right location somewhat annoying.

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