Most of you probably don't know about Mitsubishi Electric Research Laboratories (MERL), a small lab nestled in Kendall Square (very close to MIT, and a pleasant walk from Harvard). While they did basic research there, it was definitely more application/development oriented, and it specialized more in areas like UI, graphics, speech, etc. Information theorists would know it as the home of Jonathan Yedidia, a big name in coding and belief propagation, but CS theorists might not ever have heard of it.
I've done some consulting work there over the years. I knew the lab director, Joe Marks, from my time as a Harvard undergrad, and he hooked me up. It was a very nice place -- very theory-friendly in its application-oriented way. Joe clearly had the mindset that the goal of the lab was to generate new ideas, and that would drive new products.
So I was disappointed to hear several months ago that Joe had been removed as lab leader. (Don't feel too bad for Joe -- he's now at Disney, and is chairing SIGGRAPH this week. A talent like him will continue to be successful...) And even more disappointed (but not surprised) to read in Xconomy that MERL was being "re-organized", essentially phasing out the basic research component, and many people were leaving.
I've lived vicariously through this before -- I left Digital Systems Research Center before it disappeared (after Digital was bought by Compaq was bought by HP), but knew several people who went through the process. It's very disturbing to see again how hard it is for companies to make research labs work.
What makes research labs successful? Can they really last long-term in any non-monopoly environment? Let me make a bold prediction. I personally am not planning on retiring until at least age 65. Pick any research division that's around today. (Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, AT&T, Bell Labs, IBM, any of them...) I'd bet on pretty much any of them that their research wing will be gone before I hit 60. (I'm still under 40. OK, maybe I should just bet they'll be dramatically reduced or transformed into Advanced Development for a number of years somewhere along the way...) This is something people who go to research labs should know going in. Odds are likely you'll have to change jobs somewhere along the way -- not because of your own talents, but because of company-level problems. This might make such jobs seem risky, but let's not exaggerate -- when the company has problems, the talent moves to a new company.
I'd love to hear thoughts on what makes good research labs, why I'm wrong about research labs dying out, how people who have experienced such moves feel about them, or anything else on the topic.
Update : Jonathan Yedidia says in the comments that the reports of MERL's death have been highly exaggerated.