Tuesday, October 9, 2007

What France Lacks

Having beaten the All Blacks at rugby this weekend, the French now have another--and far more significant if far less publicized--occasion for pride in the award of this year's Nobel Prize for Physics to Albert Fert (of Université de Paris-Sud/Orsay) and Peter Grünberg of Germany for their work on giant magnetoresistance. Now, I could bore you for some time on this subject, because quantum physics was once upon a time a passion of mine, but suffice it to say that GMR is employed in the small hard drive you'll find in your laptop, so it was a discovery that moved quickly out of the laboratory and into the factory. Unfortunately for France, that move took place not in French R&D facilities but in IBM's laboratories in the United States. France remains on the cutting edge of physics and other sciences, but it lacks the intermediaries needed to bridge the gap between the blackboard and the shop floor. The United States, which fosters close relationships between university labs and industrial research facilities, is often first to exploit technologies explicated by physicists in other countries.

The discovery of GMR was actually the initiating event in a whole new range of technologies known as "spintronics," because they exploit the quantum property of the electron known as "spin" rather than the property "charge," which is the subject of ordinary electronics. At Boston University, across the river from me, there is now an entire laboratory devoted to spintronics, whose industrial applications are burgeoning. Government-sponsored labs such as Lawrence-Berkeley National Laboratory are also involved in moving discoveries out of the universities and into production.

France needs to invest much more in this kind of R&D. A recent paper by Philippe Aghion et al. makes this point forcefully. How much of France's lag in this regard is due to cultural bias--a disdain for the practical in favor of the theoretical, an aversion to lucrative exploitation of "pure" products of mind--is a question that can be debated.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The cultural bias may have existed but it is mostly now a political bias: pure science vs. big business considered as evil by definition.

The governemnt-paid, lifetime employed researchers in public facilities proud themselves of doing " fundamental research" devoid of any practical or commercial application.

They regard their colleagues in private labs as mercenaries of big business, just good enough to invent a better vacuum cleaner..

Quantum physics : I suppose you called your cat Schrödinger ?