The R&D Engine


By Robert Teitelman

Basic x 258pp x $23

Robert Teitelman doesn't lack ambition. The lofty aim of his new book, Profits of Science: The American Marriage of Business and Technology, is nothing less than to divulge what we have "learned since World War II about the management of technology." What drives innovation the fastest, for instance: deep-pocketed large companies or swift startups? Markets and venture capital or government intervention? These are crucial, timely questions for companies and nations struggling to compete in today's tough global marketplace.

In his search for answers, Teitelman, a senior editor at Institutional Investor magazine and author of a previous book, Gene Dreams: Wall Street, Academia and the Rise of Biotechnolgy, spins a wide range of tales, from the familiar to the fantastic. He chronicles the decline mf U.S. television makers, the rise of semiconductors and biotechnology, and the growing power of Wall Street in science and technology. He examines why productivity growth in the U.S. began to stagnate in the mid-1970s, and why DuPont Co. found it hard to duplicate the success of nylon. He even plunges into the intricacies of science policy, explaining the great debate between Vannevar Bush, Franklin Roosevelt's science adviser, who emphasized government funding for basic science, and Senator Harley M. Kilgore, who favored research aimed at boosting the economy and solving social problems.

Profits of Science, while a noble effort, is sadly flawed. Occasionally, Teitelman's analysis is downright wrong. Often, it's disconcertingly murky. At one point, for instance, Teitleman dismisses the role of research and development in consumer products such as TVs and computers--a startling assessment, given the current research-intensive race to develop high-definition television and more powerful microprocessors. At another point, the author divides techno-pundits into two groups: "Christians," he writes, believe that "the machine of progress has learned to drive itself," while "pagans...feel the frictions and imperfections of history dragging every soaring satellite back to a welcoming, if imperfect, blue-green earth." Even R&D may not help you figure that one out.

Muddled prose aside, the biggest disappointment is that after all the tales are told, Teitelman comes up empty-handed. No answers, no profound summation, no new insights into the great mystery of innovation. Take one basic question--whether big or small companies are now the primary engines of progress. Using his own case histories, Teitelman could have concluded that the crucial factor isn't size at all--it's the right mix of talented inventors and visionaries who understand the implications of new technology. Instead he wanly offers: "Although the triumph of smaller, entrepreneurial companies seems complete, the strengths of the large corporation stubbornly survive."

Given the depth of that analysis, it's not surprising that Teitelman concludes not with a bang, but a whimper. His last sentence: "And until we truly master the secrets of economic productivity and technological innovation--which we seem not to have accomplished so far--human effort and initiative will resemble a boy tossing a ball up in the air and watching it trace its distinctive parabolic arc against the sky." Enough said.

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