ZURICH—With two Nobel prizes in as many years, something good has to be going on at IBM’s research laboratory in Rüschlikon on the outskirts of this city. But apart from an environment that offers fine wines, Swiss cheeses and, on a clear day, a postcard view of the Alps, is there a lesson for other industrial research labs?

The IBM lab’s achievements are by now familiar. Last year’s Nobel Prize in physics went to IBM researchers Gerd Binning and Heinrich Rohrer for inventing the scanning tunneling microscope. This year, Georg Bednorz and Alex Müller walked off with the same honor for their pioneering work on superconductivity in a new class of metal oxides.

But the reasons behind Rüshlikon's success remain unclear. Scientists here don’t have a pat answer to the question, and the absence of even one full-time press officer makes it hard to find anyone who has even thought...

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