Prioritizing Photonics

Governments around the world increase support for optics and photonics.
29 June 2012
Alison Jones

Policymakers and governmental funding bodies are increasingly recognizing the importance and impact of using national resources to support optics and photonics activities within their borders. Despite its deep impact in a variety of markets and sectors as an enabling technology, optics has not, until recently, received the same level of recognition and support from governments as other technologies.

Now, governments from Asia, Europe, North America, and elsewhere are centralizing and prioritizing their efforts to support optics technologies and industries and to advance their own national competitiveness and economic success.

Currently in Europe, the European Commission (EC) is negotiating the budget details of its landmark Horizon 2020 program, unveiled last November, which aims to invest €80 billion for research and innovation between 2014 and 2020.

Horizon 2020Photonics was named one of Europe’s five key enabling technologies (along with advanced materials, biotechnology, micro and nano-electronics, and nanotechnology) in 2009, and one of the primary goals of Horizon 2020 is to support, master, and deploy these technologies. To that end, the program will spend approximately €13.8 billion to expand its industrial capabilities and promote international investment and competitiveness.

Other components of Horizon 2020 include efforts to simplify funding procedures for governmental grants, the creation of new public-private partnerships, and the expansion of high-risk financing for small- and medium-size companies. (See "Horizon 2020" in the April 2012 issue of SPIE Professional.)

The EC solicited feedback from stakeholders as their developed these priorities, and SPIE weighed in on many aspects of their development, including the increased prioritization of private-public partnerships and support for smaller enterprises that have high potential for growth and expansion.

“Horizon 2020 represents a real break from the past,” says Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, the EU Commissioner for Research, Innovation, and Science. After analyzing contributions received during a public consultation period, European officials knew they could not afford business as usual, Geoghegan-Quinn told attendees at a conference in Vienna on Horizon 2020 earlier this year.

“We went back to the drawing board to radically rethink how we invest in research and innovation,” she said. “The program focuses on supporting the best research and innovation ideas that provide major business opportunities and change people’s lives for the better. In short, Horizon 2020 will contribute to improving our economy and improving society.”

Thierry Van der Pyl, director of Components and Systems within the Information Society and Media Directorate- of the EC, framed the opportunities for photonics presented by Horizon 2020 at SPIE Photonics Europe in April. See the SPIE Newsroom videos of Van der Pyl discussing photonics and Horizon 2020.

Key technology in Europe

Horizon 2020 developments are taking place at the same time EU member countries are undertaking their own efforts to support optics and photonics. Spain, Germany, and England have launched funding programs to establish and support scientific research centers.

And Photonics21, the European technology platform, is working to ensure photonics receives appropriate attention. The organization last year pledged €5.6 billion in private support for a proposed Photonics Public-Private Partnership with the EC.

The German government is supporting photonics research and development with a €100 million-per-year budget for photonics R&D. That support, announced in June 2011, is set to be matched by commercial partners. Germany aims to create 20,000 new jobs by 2015, with funding expected to continue through 2020.

Spain has pledged to distribute €1 million per year for four years to eight Spanish research centers, three of which have a focus on photonics. The program is intended to expand to another 32 centers in the next four years.

Similarly, the UK has tasked its Technology Strategy Board (TSB) with the creation of technology and innovation centers called “Catapult Centers” to close the gap between technology concepts and commercialization.

A taskforce within the TSB named electronics, photonics, and electrical systems as one of its focus areas, recognizing that these systems underpin economic activity in healthcare, energy, transport, and environmental sustainability.

Although photonics was not chosen for a dedicated Catapult Center, the TSB has a £50 million pot of funding for photonics, sensor systems, smart grids, and related technologies over the next several years. In addition, photonics technologies will be featured to some degree in several of the areas that will become Catapult Centers, such as high-volume manufacturing, satellite applications, transport systems, and the connected digital economy.

The board also created a three-year strategic plan, similar to the EC’s blueprint for Horizon 2020, to reduce barriers to funding, increase governmental and private sector partnerships, and support high-risk ventures.

Focus on efficient energy in Asia

map of ChinaAsian governments have taken varied approaches in their support of optics and photonics industries.

Last year, the Chinese government announced the 12th iteration of its Five Year Plan for National Economic and Social Development. The plan, which runs through 2015, includes a focus on the economic value of seven “strategic emerging industries.” Recent reports have estimated that the Chinese government will spend $1.5 trillion US on subsidies in the fields of biotechnology, new energy, high-end equipment manufacturing, energy conservation and environmental protection, clean-energy vehicles, new materials, and next-generation IT.

The government support includes tax incentives and price subsidies for the solar energy industry in China. Additionally, the government has pledged to spend from 1.75% to 2.2% of its GDP on research and development and work toward increasing the number of patents to 3.3 per every 10,000 persons by 2015. This anticipated increase would double the number approved in 2010.

Taiwan has created three core science parks designed to be magnets for high-tech industries. The parks combine research, production, work, and recreational facilities and have helped Taiwan maintain its competitive research advantage, especially with LCD panels, LEDs, and photovoltaic systems.

According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report 2009-2010, Taiwan ranked sixth among 133 economies worldwide in the “state of cluster development” index.

The first park, Hsinchu Science Park, was created in 1980, followed by two more in 1996 and 2003. Eight more are slated for construction. With $2.53 billion US invested in Hsinchu Park by the Taiwanese government since its creation, a total of 440 companies are operating within the park, employing 132,161 persons by the end of 2009. Nearly $27 billion US was generated that year by its companies.

Harnessing light in North America

The United States hasn’t seen the same level of organized and sustained support for optics and photonics as other countries, though there is hope that might change with the release this year of a new National Academies study.

It is an update to the 1998 National Research Council study, “Harnessing Light: Optical Science and Engineering for the 21st Century,” and is expected to recommend actions for the development and maintenance of global leadership in the photonics industry.

A committee headed by SPIE Fellows Alan Wilner and Paul McManamon gathered feedback from eight different forums, including town-hall meetings and closed-session presentations by industry professionals. Participants in these forums have assisted the committee in identifying current research trends and priorities in optics and photonics.

The study director is Erik Svedberg, senior program officer with the National Academies.

Photonics in Canada

In Canada earlier this year, the merger of the Canadian Institute for Photonic Innovations (CIPI) and the Canadian Photonics Consortium (CPC) led to the establishment of the Canadian Photonic Industry Consortium (CPIC), an industry-led photonics knowledge exchange. Its mission is to help end-users of photonics technologies, industry, universities, and institutions network to accelerate economic growth and innovation.

While the new industry association will not directly fund research, CPIC has an agreement with the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) to conduct the initial vetting of government funding proposals to accelerate the NSERC review and approval process in hopes of improving the technology-transfer rate in Canada.

“We will ensure that the projects fit within NSERC’s intellectual property rules and look at how the proposals can be strengthened,” says SPIE member Robert Corriveau, executive director of CPIC and a member of the SPIE Engineering, Science & Technology Policy Committee. “This will speed up the approval process and increase their chances of success.”

There are an estimated 450 photonics companies in Canada employing approximately 20,300 people.

Canada’s proposed budget for 2012 increases funding for R&D by small- and medium-sized companies and commits $37 million a year to the granting councils to enhance their support for industry-academic research partnerships.

SPIE sponsors panel on jobs, innovation

U.S. photonics innovators met with a Congressional caucus on R&D at an SPIE-sponsored briefing in April to present insights on successful commercialization of new optical sensing products and the resulting job creation.

The briefing addressed barriers that entrepreneurs face as well as success stories.

The photonics entrepreneurs who participated included (left to right) Alan Kersey, vice president of strategy, mergers and acquisitions at CiDRA; Robert Lieberman, president of Intelligent Optical Systems and member of the SPIE board of directors; Timothy Day, chairman and CEO of Daylight Solutions; and William Yang, president and CEO of BaySpec.

SPIE volunteers urge support of science

The 17th annual Science, Engineering and Technology Congressional Visits Day brought 11 volunteers from SPIE to Washington, DC, in April to urge continued support for sustained U.S. funding for research and development programs.

In nearly 30 meetings over two days, the group thanked Congressional representatives for recent appropriations actions; discussed the importance of federal funding for science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education; and urged Congress to update and modernize export regulations that impact a variety of optics technologies.

“By advocating for scientific research and STEM education funding, two areas that are instrumental for future success and innovation in the United States, I was able to raise political awareness on these issues,” said SPIE member Kasey Phillips, a PhD student at Harvard University (USA).

“As a student, fundamental graduate work can appear disjointed from the outside world, so I was glad to be able to speak to Congress about the impact of the research we do,” she said.


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