Or imagine a cell phone-sized device with a simple interface that serves as a PC, camera and music/movie/TV player, without any visible buttons.
These are examples of products that could be developed if the U.S. government boosts its funding of basic research—research that the industry is not prepared to invest in, according to Adam Drobot, chief technology officer at Telcordia Technologies, in Piscataway, N.J.
Speaking before the Senate Committee on Commerce March 29, Drobot said U.S. industry is unable to fully fund the research needed to discover ground-breaking advances critical to the nations competitiveness.
In the communications sector, a heritage of monopoly has left an industry structure that does not adequately support basic research, he said.
"The history of the telecommunications industry has left us with weak public mechanisms for funding precompetitive research in communications, paradoxically, because so much of the research was initially done in a dominant institution, Bell Labs," Drobot, who is also chairman of the Telecommunications Industry Associations Communications Research Division, said in his testimony before the committee.
For the tech sector overall, a growing pressure to realize higher quarterly profits has made it increasingly difficult to fund long-term research. Of the $2 billion that Texas Instruments invests in R&D annually, most is spent on development rather than basic research, according to Philip Ritter, senior vice president of public affairs at Texas Instruments, based in Dallas.
"Most of this spending is on the nearer-term development phase to ensure introduction of new products in an industry with short product cycles," Ritter told lawmakers. "In our high-performance analog division alone, we introduced 400 new products in 2004, and 50 percent of that divisions revenue was from products introduced within the past few years."
The Bush Administrations 2007 budget proposal includes a 2 percent increase in non-defense R&D funding. Basic research funding would grow to $28.2 billion in 2007, a 32 percent increase over the 2001 funding level of $21.2 billion, according to John Marburger, director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the Executive Office of the President.
Funding for the National Science Foundation, National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Department of Energys Office of Science would double in 10 years under this proposal.
"This amounts to a total of $50 billion in new investments in high-leverage, innovation-enabling research that will underpin and complement shorter-term and mission-oriented R&D performed by other agencies and the private sector," Marburger told lawmakers.
The process leading from basic research to a commercialized product is less linear and more multidimensional and complex than it once was, said Arden Bement, director of the National Science Foundation, which is primarily a basic research institution.
"Even the inquiries encountered in developing commercial products and services can generate ideas for frontier research. This give and take blurs the lines between the old categories, and makes innovation a much broader team sport," Bement said, calling for new partnerships between government, industry and academia.