US research: key leader sees new stress on innovation
Is America's speech emphasis shifting from a defensive to an offensive approach? Dr. Sherwood L. Fawcett, president of Battelle Memorial Institute, suggests that it is.
"In the past we've tended to worry about environmental problems and lawsuits to the point where not that many new things now is that with all the stress on the reindustrialization of America, there's more of an emphasis on development of new things. It's a move in the right direction."
As the world's largest independent research institute and one that does more than half of its business under contract with US government agencies, Battelle is virtually sure to be affected by the Reagan administration's policy decisions on research work and budget cuts. But for the moment Dr. Fawcett ventures out on no limb when asked about that potential impact: "It's really too soon to tell." Indeed, the consensus at Battelle seems to be that the Reagan trims could hurt the institute in some ways but help it in others.
Whatever the future may hold, Battelle has achieved a solid reputation for growth and savvy business decisions over the years. It was started more than 50 years ago with $3.5 million in bequests from the Battelle family, pioneers in Ohio's steel industry. Since then, the institute has grown to include four major research laboraties around the world, operating on an annual budget of more than $400 million.
Unlike a number of other major research institutions, which have veered off into management consulting, the non- profit Battelle has long emphasized work in the physical sciences and engineering. It has continued to buy the costly heavy equipment needed to advance in those areas.
"You have to parcel out that money very carefully," Dr. Fawcett notes. "The requests [from staff researchers] for equipment are always about twice as much as we can afford."
He concedes that Battelle also got where it is as a business operation by being very choosy about which inventions it decided to patent or nurture. Over the years institute researchers have looked at more than 25,000 inventions but have invested money in only 566.
"Inventions are a highly risky business," cautions Dr. Fawcett. He notes that fewer than half of the 67 inventions actually licensed by Battelle have returned more money than was invested in their development. (Inventions patented in the course of work for a sponsor, either business or government, become the property of that sponsor.)
One of the risks taken which has paid off handsomely over the years was a decision in 1944 to help Chester Carlson, a man who had tried in vain to interest some 20 companies in his work with a dry photographic process using static electricity. After development, his invention of xerography was sold to what is now the Xerox Corporation in return for a share of its stock. That stock has since yielded major dollar benefits to Battelle.
Most people are familiar with the results if not the source of many Battelle inventions. The white liquid typewriter eraser, for instance, that sits on most secretarial desks was developed right here. And it was Battelle's study and suggestion in 1965 that led to the use by the US Mint of a copper core and a copper-nickel alloy for strengthening the dimes and quarters that jingle in people's pockets.
But most of Battelle's research and inventions probably go unnoticed, even in a generic sense, by the vast majority of Americans. Take one of the institute's latest victories, for instance. Researchers at the Columbus laboratory have been working on the development of a very thin (1/10000th of an inch) polymer coating which can be used over anything from wood and cloth to glass and metal.
The institute's newest breakthrough in this field is the development of color in these coatings. Uses may range from marking parts for easier recognition on an assembly line to decoration or protection for jewelry and packaging. Although researchers had decided sometime earlier that colored coatings were in the realm of possibility, the actual discovery came while scientists here were experimenting with ways to improve the coating's adhesive properties.
They were depositing tiny particles of various metals in the coatings when they noticed that the color slowly began to change. Aluminum produced blue, for instance, while gold produced red. Research scientist Roy Wielonski claims he was not "exceedingly" surprised by the color shift. But he concedes that the extent of the change after adding such imperceptibly small atoms of metals was "almost like magic."
Much of Battelle's work is of the long-range variety, requiring patience and offering few such dramatic breakthroughs. Under current contracts with the Department of Energy, for instance, researchers here are looking into a technique that would use sunlight and water to produce a hydrogen substitute for natural gas.Technical and cost problems have kept the research from moving swiftly.
Still, the potential exists for dollar savings in some areas. By automating the repetitive parts of designing and standardizing the geometry of class rings, Battelle saved one of its sponsors $2 million a year.