Originally created 06/19/97

Microsoft research center to be created in Britain (London)



LONDON - Microsoft Corp. has chosen Cambridge for its first research center outside the United States, a decision that will create one of Europe's most important sites for basic computer-science research.

The $80 million investment, announced Tuesday, will be a collaboration with Cambridge University, where computer expertise and entrepreneurial spinoffs already have spawned some 300 companies in the region.

Microsoft Research, the research arm of the huge software company, also announced here today that it will create a $10 million fund to help support small technology companies in the Cambridge area.

To date, Microsoft has conducted almost all its research at its home campus in Redmond, Wash., saying that concentrating big minds in one spot creates a hothouse for ideas. But, having announced plans to triple its research budget over three years, it is starting to diversify away from that base.

At a time when many of the top students in U.S. computer science schools are foreign citizens, Microsoft has complained that Washington's immigration policy can make it difficult to hire them into jobs in the United States. The company has campaigned for more freedom to hire without regard to nationality.

The announcements generated considerable excitement in business and government circles in Britain and a resurgence of the notion of the Cambridge area as "Silicon Fen," so called because of the wet "fenlands" in the area. Financing for commercial application of academic research lags well behind the research itself here and government funding for universities is tighter than ever.

It will be the largest single infusion of research money and brainpower to land in one spot in Britain in anyone's memory. Microsoft will hire 40 senior computer science researchers, roughly double the number currently on the Cambridge faculty. Cambridge faculty members and students will be able to study at Microsoft Research Cambridge, as the facility will be known. It will be headed by Roger Needham, professor of computer systems at the university.

Nathan Myhrvold, Microsoft's chief technology officer, said in an interview that the company decided some time ago that it wanted to tap into expertise outside of the West Coast of the United States, and that while it looked into a number of locations, Cambridge, with its existing base in the field, "was at the top of the list."

Myhrvold was formerly a postdoctoral researcher under reknowned Cambridge professor and author Stephen Hawking but he said that was not a factor in the choice of Cambridge.

He said the research in Cambridge, where Microsoft will erect a new building for its work, will focus on all aspects of computer science, including speech recognition and how people interact with computers.

While the lab also will study computer security and Cambridge has a long history of skill in coding and decoding, Myhrvold denied what he said was speculation that part of the purpose in going abroad was to get around U.S. restrictions on the export of encryption technology.

If that was the goal, he said, Britain, with its own export restrictions, "would not be the place to do it. You'd go to Russia," he said.

Cambridge's equally prestigious competitor, Oxford University, today formally accepted its own huge gift of roughly $35 million for construction of a new business school. The money, from Syrian-born millionaire businessman Wafic Said, has been a source of controversy for more than a year at Oxford in part because of concern on the faculty about the terms set out by Said, which give him some control over the school, and because the first choice for a location was a sports field.

Said said he would withdraw the offer if Oxford did not accept this month. The school's "congregation," or parliament of dons, today approved a new site, an unused storage yard near Oxford's rail station, and a new structure of control in the form of a board split evenly among Oxford appointees and appointees nominated by Said.