Industrial R&D has changed profoundly since the 1970-1990s, according to Charles Duke of Xerox, who gave a thought-provoking presentation at the recent American Physical Society March Meeting in Montréal, Canada. That change has been brought about the geopolitical situation, which has seen the end of the cold war and the rise of the ‘war on terrorism’. The drive for ‘peace through prosperity’ has shifted the emphasis from military to economic competition, says Duke. But the US, he says, is in the midst of an ‘economic’ world war III with fast-developing nations such as India and China.

The rise of the globalized economy, where geographical boundaries mean very little, is particularly evident in science. In both industrial and academic research, the work force is technically skilled, knowledgeable, and highly mobile. Communication on a global scale is getting easier and cheaper all the time. The analogy Duke gave is that of moving from ‘closed’ innovation, where knowledge is scarce and confined to a particular organization, to an ‘open’ model, where it is readily available and easily shared. Duke used this idea to explain the changes in major industrial labs such as Xerox PARC, Bell Laboratories, and the like over the past decade. The scene has shifted, he says, from a climate where ‘blue skies’ research could flourish to a very different model focused much more heavily on the ‘development’ of R&D.

But the emergence of a globalized scientific arena has profound implications beyond industrial R&D. One issue that raised its head at the meeting is the role of ‘national’ societies in such a global community. Should the ‘American’ Physical Society become ‘International’ to better reflect the spread of its membership, asked Duke? Or does such an organization still have a vital role lobbying for the interests of its ‘local’ members? Perhaps more interesting is what sort of ‘community’ role societies will have to take on when e-mail and the Internet make it so easy to bring together disparate groups of individuals. The current ‘Sauvons la Recherche’ (Let's Save Research) campaign launched by French scientists in protest at the perceived inadequacy of governmental support for basic research, is an interesting case in point. The on-line petition has gathered over 70 000 ‘signatures’ from French researchers and over 1000 from international scientists. One of the signatories' concerns is a distinctly global one. If funding and conditions do not improve, says the open letter to the French government, those researchers who can leave for greener pastures will do so. France lost some 3000 science graduates and PhDs to the US alone in the year 2000 and few are likely to return in the current climate.

Scientists are, perhaps, a uniquely mobile group of individuals who are already well used to operating in a global arena. Like migrating birds, they will follow research investment wherever it leads. Both industry and governments should ignore this at their own risk.

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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(04)00213-5