STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES OF ISTEC AS A LARGE CONSORTIUM

In the WTEC panel’s visits and discussions in Japan, we became aware of a variety of views of the strengths and weaknesses of a large consortium such as ISTEC. In its second phase, when it takes on broader technical areas, and represents an even bigger fraction of the Japanese HTS research activity (and certainly a large fraction of the world’s activity in this field), it will come under even greater scrutiny.

A major strength, to repeat the obvious, is the sustained and long-term high level of funding. The SRL budget is far beyond the dreams of any research consortium in the United States, by a factor of about five. It represents the annual budgets of two to three of the four U.S. "start-up" companies (Conductus, ISC, SCT, and STI) combined, but with a much greater guarantee of stability. Japan is investing research funds in an entity that will exist for 5 or 10 more years. A good fraction of the funding in the United States is going into companies that will only exist if they succeed in the near term in becoming profitable through the sale of products. There is a risk that the U.S. investment might be lost. In fact, some of the investment has already been dissipated, in that the commercial focus on wireless products in the four companies has resulted in highly skilled research people leaving the superconductivity field for work in other technologies. This situation is somewhat similar to the educational function of ISTEC, but with one difference: the supporting companies of ISTEC, to which scientists return, do have an interest in superconductivity.

ISTEC’s high budget level has resulted in a second strength. The materials characterization equipment and instrumentation at SRL is superb, far beyond the capabilities of any single HTS center or laboratory in the United States. This is likely to remain true indefinitely, given anticipated future funding levels in the two countries. The only possible approach in the United States is to use instruments that are spread across many laboratories in the informal, collaborative way that is close to instinctive for U.S. researchers. Or, with the increasing use of high speed communications, some have suggested the formal recognition of distributed materials characterization centers.

Another view the panel heard expressed was that an advantage of having a large consortium such as ISTEC is that it provides long-term stability for superconductivity (SC) activities in Japan. Companies that may have a few or no scientists engaged in SC in their own laboratories regard participation in ISTEC as "insurance" that the technology will be available in Japan, and to them, when the markets begin to grow. Meanwhile, in universities the presence of ISTEC is regarded as justification for fundamental research in superconductivity.

On the other hand, panelists heard that the centralized collaborative activity of SRL has weaknesses. It was suggested that some participating companies do not send people of the same caliber to work at SRL that they have in SC research in their own laboratories. Often they send scientists with no experience in the field. Industry representatives also feel that ISTEC is so large that it can become isolated from their needs. There is some evidence that this is true, as the fraction of SRL staff from the industrial partners has declined in recent years. There is a belief that in large teams of researchers at SRL, independence and creativity are suppressed. (Or, maybe, industry does not send its most creative scientists?) Another concern that panelists heard from industrial scientists was that the growth of ISTEC in Phase 2 would weaken support for superconductivity R&D in their own companies, in that their management would assume ISTEC is taking care of developing the technology.

In the view of the panel, Phase 2 of ISTEC represents a speculative gamble for the field. A large fraction of the applied research of the world, in all the SC applications, is to be focused in one place. This center does not presently have strong experience in two of the applications, power and electronics (but the team of three advisors to SCE is an excellent step towards addressing such lack of experience). The critical place that ISTEC appears destined to hold in high Tc superconductivity applied research worldwide in the next decade suggests that some international role in goal setting and progress monitoring through some advisory body may be desirable for the health of both ISTEC and the field as a whole.


Published: July 1998; WTEC Hyper-Librarian