PHYSICIST ROBERT DYNES REMEMBERS THE time when the corridors of AT&T Bell Labs were bursting with history in the making. "I remember Memorial Day 1970," says Dynes, who in 1990 left the lab to become a professor at the University of Californai, San Diego, "when Mort Panish and Izuo Hayashi got their first continuously running room-temperature gallium arsenide laser going, and came running down the halls dragging whoever was around out of their offices as witnesses. You knew immediately this thing was going to have an impact on the world. That's the kind of place it was."
Lately that feeling has been rarer at the big Murray Hill, New Jersey, complex. The main reason: a sharp recent shift in the lab's organization and priorities, which came as a delayed response to the breakup of the Bell companies in 1984. For several years folllowing divestiture, things remained relatively stable at the lab, which was the foremost example of a basic research lab in an industrial setting--indeed, something very much like a national industrial research laboratory.
Then, last September, the long-expected--and dreaded--realignment finally took place under the direction of Arno Penzias, vice president for research of AT&T Bell Labs and lab director. The aim was to reduce duplication in research and align it with the activities of the business units, to orient research toward the near term (defined as just beyond the planning horizon of businesses, about 3 to 5 years), and to streamline the flow of information within the company from basic research through development and manufacture. "We adjusted the food chain," says Penzias, likening Bell Labs to an ecosystem.
In the eyes of some Bell Lab watchers, these changes constitute a new "paradigm" for the running of a large research laboratory. Within the lab, reactions to this new paradigm vary, depending on temeprament and field of research, with basic researchers tending to lament a loss of freedom. But even many of those who felt strongly enough to leave acknowledge that Bell had little choice, because the lab's existence now depends on the company's survival in an intensely competitive international marketplace. In fact, they marvel that Bell was able to support what amounted to a national research facility as long as it did after divestiture. The real problem, observers say, lies not with Bell but with overall U.S. research policy, which without conscious choice allowed a key national research facility to be dismantled.
Ironically, one of those who initially thought that divestiture would kill Bell Labs was Arno Penzias himslf. In testimony during U.S. vs. AT&T, the 1981 trial that preceded divestiture, Penzias said that a breakup would make Bell Labs a "sinking ship." But today, Penzias doesn't even flinch when the remark is recalled. "If we 'd done everything in the old way, we probably would have sunk," he says. "But we've fixed the hull. We're back to a healthy operation." Penzias himself admits, though, that the repairs required emergency measures that tested the stamina of his crew.