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Social Innovation: The Lab Without Wall

Steinmetz’s technology-driven science is anathema to many academic scientists.

Steinmetz’s innovation also led to the “lab without walls,” which is America’s specific, and major, contribution to very large scientific and technological programs. The first of these, conceived and managed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s former law partner, Basil O’Connor, was the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (March of Dimes), which tackled polio in the early 1930s. This project continued for more than twenty-five years and brought together in a planned, step-by-step effort a large number of scientists from half a dozen disciplines, in a dozen different locations across the country, each working on his own project but with in a central strategy and under overall direction.

This then established the pattern for the great World War II projects: the RADAR lab, the Lincoln Laboratory, and, most massive of them all, the Manhattan Project for atomic energy. Similarly, NASA organized a “research lab without walls” when this country decided, after Sputnik, to put a man on the moon. Steinmetz’s technology-driven science is still highly controversial problem emerges, for example, when AIDS suddenly became a major medical problem in 1984-85.

Research Laboratory: Obsolete?

Technologies crisscross industries and travel incredibly fast.

What accounts for the decline in the number of major corporate research labs? The company-owned research laboratory was one of the nineteenth century’s most successful inventions. Now many research directors, as well as high-tech industrialists, tend to believe that such labs are becoming obsolete. Why? Technologies crisscross industries and travel incredibly fast, making few of them unique anymore. And increasingly, the knowledge needed in a given industry comes out of some totally different technology with which, very often, the people in the past are becoming obsolete.

The research laboratory of the big telephone companies, the famous Bell Laboratories of the U.S., was for many decade the source of all major innovations in the telephone industry. But no one in that industry worked on fiberglass cables or had ever heard of them. They were developed by a glass company. Corning. Yet they have revolutionized communications worldwide.

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