If you like rationalizing events (see Happiness of a scientist I), you would probably enjoy convincing yourself that your jobs actually fits with your initial expectations, and this will require a certain amount of rationalization and a posteriori reinterpretation of your expectations ;-)
So this is why I will try to do now.
Scientific research is about understanding phenomena (whether natural [e.g. physics], human [e.g. economics] or abstract [e.g. mathematics]). A scientific breakthrough can either be a discovery of a new phenomenon, a new insight about an existing phenomenon, or an explanation/justification/proof of an insight.
The point here is that it is all about having a better understanding of things.
What for? Well, besides the joy of understanding, the immediate consequence is the ability to positively impact the real world: e.g. build new systems or better ones, do things you could not do before, make a step forward technologically...
Of course, this is not necessarily the main motivation nor is it the main justification for scientific research, but it can be seen as a nice side-effect of understanding.
In any case, if you come up with a new idea, whether you care about applying this idea or not, the first thing you want do to is to test this idea. Testing can be done in two ways
- publishing it (so that your peers can comment on it, argue, verify, derive consequences...)
- experiment it (so that you can verify by yourself that the new understanding is indeed correct)
It is often difficult and time-consuming to design and execute experiments, so many scientists are satisfied by publishing.
But if one is given the necessary resources, experimenting can be a good substitute to publishing.
In private companies, not only do you often have resources for experimenting ideas, but also you are encouraged to do so (this is your part of your 80%) and even further, to go beyond experiments towards real-world applications (which give the ultimate validation of your ideas).
The conclusion I want to draw from all this is the following: one can be very happy doing research in a company because publishing is advantageously replaced by real-world testing of ideas.
[Note: I carefully avoided the topic of long-term research vs short-term engineering solutions... I might deal with this in a future post, although it is more comfortable not to face this at the moment ;)]