Researchers at UCSB are conducting a new kind of experiment. They are changing the way industries do basic research.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has chosen the UCSB, UCLA and UCI campuses to become a part of the new Center for Nanoscale Innovation for Defense (CNID), intended to jump-start industry involvement in basic research. As a member of CNID, UCSB’s research specialties will include spintronics and quantum information, micromechanical structures, nanophotonics and nanoelectronics.

Over the last decade, the wave of startup companies in the United States has forced larger companies to streamline production and basic research in order to cut costs and stay competitive. Prior to this trend, huge amounts of fundamental scientific research in the United States took place within large corporations.

David Awschalom of the UCSB College of Engineering was instrumental in developing the idea for the new center.

“Until about eight or nine years ago, your phone bill subsidized Bell Laboratories that was building new technology, whether it was a laser or optical fibers. That work was all done in industry – fundamental research no different than here [at UCSB], because they viewed it as driving the next generation of technology,” he said. “Well now you have a wireless phone. Your phone bills have dropped $25 a month. Long distance, which used to be hundreds of dollars for many of us, is zero. Without your $20, those companies can’t fund basic research any more – which is on the order of a hundred million or several hundred million dollars a year. Their profits have dropped a huge amount.”

As the bottom drops out of basic research in industry, many scientists are uncertain about the future.

“When you look at the history of Nobel Prizes in science, a vast number of them in physics came from industrial labs. Whether it’s lasers, superconductivity, a scanning tunneling microscope. Okay, these are all basic research projects in industry at Bell Labs, IBM, Hewlett-Packard, DuPont,” Awschalom said. “So what does this mean for you? I mean, where will the next generation of technology come from? In almost every case they were in these places: new materials, new science, new devices.”

CNID has been proposed as a solution to this problem. It is an open agreement between the involved universities and corporations – many of whom happen to be defense contractors – which will be coordinated by the government.

“CNID is sponsored by the [Defense] Advanced Research Projects Agency: the people who brought you the Internet. … One of their large goals is to improve the economic well being of the United States and to improve the standard of living of the United States. … So our center is based on economic well-being. We don’t do anything classified. We don’t do defense work,” Awschalom said.

“The idea was to try and develop a portal in which interested industry can come to UCSB and other UC campuses, see what’s going on and try and learn what new scientific discoveries may be helpful. So companies like DuPont are involved, Rockwell [Automation] here in Thousand Oaks, Hewlett-Packard. These companies, they’re having difficulties running basic research labs at the level they want now. They would like to work more with the universities. And the idea is to have some infrastructure that’s a painless way for them to do it.”

Half of CNID’s funding is dedicated to recruiting graduate students and funding their research. The other half is dedicated to buying scientific equipment for university use. Because none of the funds are allocated toward specific project goals, the center’s funding remains flexible, allowing it to change direction in research and stay at the cutting edge.

Every six months, a review session will be held, at which rotating panelists from participating universities, corporations and the government can come and look at presentations by graduate students of current CNID research. Corporations and universities both use this opportunity to make contacts and examine new routes of research. Researchers, both corporate and academic, can pick each others’ brains. Awschalom said he hopes this new type of collaboration will inspire imitators across the country.

“Our view is this is very much a win-win situation for everyone,” Awschalom said. “It’s early. It’s just started. It’s still an experiment.”