Microsoft Research Lab Will Expand To Cambridge, Conduct Academic Research

As other high-technology companies cut back on their research laboratories, Microsoft continues to increase its ranks of free-rein thinkers.

The company, which has research laboratories in Redmond, Wash.; Beijing; Cambridge, England; Bangalore, India; and Silicon Valley, will announce plans on Monday to open a sixth laboratory, in Cambridge, Mass., in the Boston metropolitan area.

These are laboratories where people focus on science, not product development. To lead the new laboratory, the company has appointed one of its veteran researchers, Jennifer Tour Chayes. Chayes, 51, who has a doctorate in mathematical physics, said, “We believe that in the long run, putting money into basic research will pay off, but you have to wait longer for it.”

Microsoft, beset by competitive pressures from companies like Google, sees first-rate research laboratories as more important than ever. The company, which made a $44.6 billion bid for Yahoo last week as one way to compete with Google, wants a set of laboratories in place that can develop business opportunities that will pay off well into the future.

“Essentially every other industrial lab I know is shrinking, with the exception of Google,” Chayes said. Since she joined the company in 1997, she said, Microsoft Research has grown eightfold to 800 researchers who hold doctorates.

Those research scientists are far outnumbered by the thousands of Microsoft engineers working in advanced development and direct product development.

“The outcome of basic research is insights, and what development people do is take those insights and create products with them,” Chayes said. “The two things are very different.”

Microsoft is adamant about retaining a pure research department reminiscent of the old Bell Laboratories, whose scientists were awarded six Nobel Prizes.

“Microsoft is probably the sole remaining corporate research lab that still values basic research,” said Maria Klawe, a mathematician who is president of Harvey Mudd College.

Google employs 100 scientists in its research laboratories. Many employees are encouraged to spend 20 percent of their time on something they are passionate about that may not be directly related to their main project.

The new Microsoft laboratory, which will be next door to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is scheduled to open in July. Chayes will be joined at first by three other Microsoft scientists, including her husband, Christian Borgs, who is also a mathematician and who will be deputy managing director of the Boston laboratory.

Chayes will be one of the first women to direct a research laboratory run by an American corporation. She was a tenured professor of mathematics at the University of California, Los Angeles, when Microsoft hired her to conduct research. Chayes was skeptical, she said, and wondered why Microsoft would want a mathematician whose work might not pay off for many decades. But the company promised her that she would have full academic freedom and support for unconventional work.

Chayes has since built her group in Redmond, called the Theory Group, into one of the most eminent research groups on or off a university campus. “Anyone who’s anyone in theoretical computer science visits her laboratory,” said Lenore Blum PhD ’68, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University.

Richard F. Rashid, a former Carnegie Mellon computer scientist who is senior vice president of research at Microsoft, said Chayes’s work is valuable.

“If you look at her research, it’s very theoretical,” said Rashid, who holds a doctorate in computer science. At the same time, he said, two areas of her expertise have proved useful for Microsoft.

The work she performed in developing simple models of certain liquids and solids turned out to be useful in the study of random, self-engineered networks like the Internet. And some of Chayes’s insights into theoretical computer science have recently led to the development of some exceedingly fast networking algorithms.

Over the years, Chayes has been courted by other research laboratories, including Google’s, but she says she remains content at Microsoft. One reason is the intellectual freedom it offers. Unlike other companies with intellectual property interests to protect, she said, Microsoft does not require internal prepublication review of academic papers written by its researchers.

Chayes, who works with groups that help bring more young women into the sciences, said she hoped to serve as a role model for young women considering a career in computer science or math, two fields that have long suffered a dearth of women.