"We still sponsor undirected research, but not as much as before. For instance, we don't do the astronomy work that we used to do. But now we focus our researchers in areas where we know they can be successful," said Rittenhouse.
"From our point of view, that was really always the case--we didn't study cosmic background radiation because we thought is was interesting physics, we studied it to improve satellite communications. It turned out we also solved an interesting physics problem, but that was not our intent."
Bell Labs most famous semiconductor breakthrough was the development of the transistor. In 1945, the Labs formed its Solid State Physics Group led by physicist William Shockley, whose mission was to develop an alternative to vacuum tube amplifiers. That groups developed the theoretical work of physicist Julius Edgar Lilienfeld, who filed the original patent on the transitor in 1925, but never developed the idea. Shockley, John Bardeen and Walter Houser Brattain are generally credited with the transistors invention, and were awarded the 1956 Nobel Prize for their pioneering work.
"Today our mission is not that different from what is was before: We have always done and still do research that is scientifically important, but which is also relevant to the area of computation and communications" said Rittenhouse. "Even for transistors, we didn't study them out of curiosity. We studied them because you can't make good telecom switches out of vaccum tubes."
Nevertheless, Bell Labs abandonment of basic research in IC materials and devices leaves the U.S. with one less semiconductor R&D center at a time when the pace on innovation is quickening and CMOS fabrication moves to advanced nodes beyond 45 nanometers. IBM Research (Yorktown Heights, N.Y.) is considered the leading fundamental semiconductor research facility left in the U.S. But Rittenhouse argued that it no longer makes sense for Bell Labs to compete with IBM in semiconductor research.
"When Lucent had a semiconductor business that was coupled into selling communications chips, it was perfectly reasonable to have a semiconductor research group that focused on materials and devices," said Rittenhouse. "Even after the spinoff to Agere [Systems Inc., which merged with LSI Corp. last year], we kept the group going for six years just because it was doing very good physics and gave us another way of looking at communications problems. But now we have decided to move on, close that facility, and focus instead on fundamental work in networking, wireless and optics."
Bell Labs distributed research model is not stagnating, according to the company, but in fact has been expanded with "directed" research focused on the core businesses of parent Alcatel-Lucent. The company also continues to receive awards for its pioneering work, but unless its quantum computation, high-speed electronics and nanotechnology group comes up with a breakthrough technology, Bell Labs in unlikely to receive any more Nobel Prizes.