Research and development needs to be a global affair

R&D may begin at home, but casting the net further abroad can still bring good returns

In America last week, President Bush stood up in California and pledged billions of dollars in support of science and technology to"ensure the US remains the innovation centre of the world". He shared the platform with Cisco chief executive John Chambers, who naturally applauded the commitment.

Chambers didn't mention that Cisco was simultaneously announcing a new research and development lab in Hanoi, a move the company said was "about the potential of the young engineering talent in Vietnam, and this initiative is one of our efforts to nurture that talent".

This apparent contradiction looks particularly uncomfortable to IT industry staff already nervous about job drift. With manufacturing, support and company services already outsourced, if R&D goes East, will there be anything left to do back at home?

There is no necessary contradiction between investing at home and abroad in research. Quite the opposite. The trend is for organisations to set up chains of laboratories around the world while maintaining their original work at home. Some of this is a genuine desire to secure the services of the best brains in the world, some is old-style political investment as part of a bargain with governments. Either way, the worry shouldn't be that this is happening, but more that it's being mismanaged.

Companies shouldn't assume that they can take what they want with no comeback, even if their primary aim in setting up a laboratory is to buy purchase with an administration. The society that nurtured the people is entitled to expect a return, be it monetary, social or practical. An organisation must not steam in and seal away the best minds of a country behind an impenetrable corporate firewall of self-interest. That invokes the ghosts of imperialism – and there are no developing countries unvisited by those haunting memories.

Regional R&D brings with it regional responsibilities which cannot be ignored. But with that comes regional benefits – access to what HP succinctly calls "the next billion customers" – and a fresh look at ideas that can benefit the sponsoring company in many ways. Existing employees back in the developed world must see regional R&D as a sign of strength and an opportunity to revitalise the whole company, and must be prepared to listen to what they say.

Globalisation goes both ways: we can make it work to our mutual advantage or we can let others get the best of it. Hoping it doesn't apply to us won't work – and if we pretend otherwise, neither will we.