Ensuring a Critical Mass of Talented Researchers

The early 21st century is a time of major change with respect to telecommunications—as legacy networks are being phased out and new networks are being phased in, and as pressures from overseas competition mount. Now more than ever, research will play a critical role in determining the future health of the entire U.S. telecommunications ecosystem. In the past, research support has contributed to the production of many talented technical leaders, and one essential component of any strong research system is the cohort of talented researchers involved. A healthy level of research support is vital for developing this talent pool and for maintaining and enhancing expertise in telecommunications.

Talent development in telecommunications generally is heavily supported by research funds as graduate students assist seasoned professors in research efforts. Inadequate research funding at this stage can complicate the ability of universities to attract or develop graduate students and their professors. Graduates have historically taken positions as postdoctoral researchers, often at major industrial research laboratories. At this stage, too, there is a need for research funding.

During the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, many new, talented Ph.D.s left major universities with detailed knowledge of a specific discipline and began work for industrial research laboratories, where they refined their skills, studied applications of forward-looking ideas, constructed prototypes, published papers, attended conferences, met the other experts in the area, and generally progressed toward being leaders in their field.

Assessment of the true impact of this model is very difficult to measure, but there is little doubt that it has been large. For example, many major telecommunications firms have histories that can be traced to individuals who worked at Bell Laboratories, Bellcore, BNR, IBM Research, Xerox PARC, Motorola, and others. Although the committee is unaware of systematically collected data on this point, anecdotal evidence suggests that the number of telecommunications industry leaders developed in this way is quite large.

With fewer research opportunities available in industry today, it is more difficult for new graduates to find opportunities to mature as researchers. The implications of this trend for sustaining a healthy pool of talent and expertise are significant. In today’s start-up companies, former students are almost immediately thrust into product development. The opportunity for a period of exploration and intellectual growth is thus diminished and, as a result, young Ph.D.s may develop less insight into a technological area (while arguably gaining a better vision of the whole development process and increasing their chances of turning almost any decent strategy, technological or otherwise, into profitability).

Several universities have over the years introduced interdisciplinary programs in telecommunications that focus more on telecommunications as an industry rather than just basic communications technology (e.g., basic communications courses and research in modulation, coding, protocols, signal processing, and queuing theory) and also address attendant financial, structural, legal, regulatory, and technological issues. Those programs usually span such disciplines as electrical engineering, computer science, business administration, public policy, and law.8 They generally offer master’s or other professional degrees rather than doctoral


The International Telecommunications Education and Research Association, which seeks to advance telecommunications science through excellence in research and education, has a dozen institutional members located at universities and colleges across the United States. See <http://www.itera.org/membership.htm>.

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