Staff says Bell Labs has ended basic physics research

Aug. 28, 2008
August 29, 2008--According to an August article in Nature entitled "Bell Labs bottoms out," physicists at Bell Labs claim that the once iconic Bell Laboratories has finally pulled out of basic science. Just four scientists are left working in Bell's fundamental physics department in Murray Hill, New Jersey, according to the article. Others have either left or been reassigned to other parts of the company, and a major materials-fabrication facility has been shut down.

August 29, 2008--According to an August article in Nature entitled "Bell Labs bottoms out," physicists at Bell Labs claim that the once iconic Bell Laboratories has finally pulled out of basic science. Just four scientists are left working in Bell's fundamental physics department in Murray Hill, New Jersey, according to the article. Others have either left or been reassigned to other parts of the company, and a major materials-fabrication facility has been shut down.

"Four people can't be called a basic research group," says Ronen Rapaport, who left the laboratory last summer for a position at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

But officials at Alcatel-Lucent, Bell's parent company, say that reports of the lab's death are greatly exaggerated. Fundamental science remains, but it has moved away from physics, says Gee Rittenhouse, VP of research at Bell Labs.
"We've shifted the fundamental research over to include mathematics, computer science, networking, and wireless," he says.

Founded in 1925, Bell Labs was once considered the world's pre-eminent industrial laboratory for physics. Scientists working there regularly won Nobel prizes, including ones for the invention of the transistor and the laser. Much of the early work was funded by the enormous profits of Bell's then parent company, AT&T, which held a monopoly on U.S. telecommunications for more than half a century. But deregulation forced AT&T to split off Bell and other parts of the company into Lucent Technologies in 1996. Lucent struggled to finance its new research arm and the situation rapidly deteriorated after demand for telecommunications equipment collapsed in 2001.

Bell's Murray Hill campus has been "heavily consolidated" since the merger, according to Bettina Tratz-Ryan, a telecoms analyst with Gartner (Stamford, CT), an IT market-research firm. Staff levels have been cut and some buildings have been sold to property speculators.

In February, Bell shut down a top-of-the-line silicon fabrication facility once used by materials scientists. Rittenhouse confirmed that around 20 people were made redundant or reassigned as a result of the shutdown. Given the grim outlook, many scientists started to look for other work to avoid redundancy, according to Vladimir Aksyuk, a visiting professor at the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (Gaithersburg, Maryland), who left Bell Labs in May.

For more information, visit www.nature.com/news/2008/080820/full/454927a.html .

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