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SPIE Professional October 2011

Optics R&D at risk

SPIE President Katarina Svanberg discusses how science and technology R&D is at risk.

By Katarina Svanberg

Photonics has enabled many remarkable improvements in life throughout the world. Our smart phones deliver immediate information over the photonics-powered Internet on beautiful displays enabled by processors and memory manufactured by laser lithography. Hospitals, clinics, and aid teams in remote areas are able to deliver life-saving care with light-based therapies. And photonics technology is helping to supply clean water and sustainable energy solutions.

Parallel to these advances enabled by optics and photonics, our current economic problems are being met with drastic budget cuts. As a result, the future of science and technology R&D is at risk.

Government officials everywhere are overwhelmed with appeals for support from interest groups, of which the photonics sector is only one. Many scientists and engineers have met with elected policy makers and their staffs to argue for support for science and technology (S&T) and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education.

Increasing our visibility

As we look at more belt tightening across the globe, it is becoming imperative to communicate the value of our field, to point out what social, economic, and security benefits optics and photonics have already brought, and to depict the extraordinary impact to come.

Comprehensive surveys of the industry are one way to help inform policy makers.

The Photonics21 Vision report for Europe from this spring and the new German program, "Photonics Research Germany-Lighting the Future," are two of the most recent efforts being made to keep science and technology moving ahead.

At 2011 SPIE Optics + Photonics in San Diego, five members of the U.S. National Academies' Harnessing Light update committee, led by committee co-chairs Paul McManamon and Alan Willner (pictured below), held a town hall forum to discuss the committee's report on photonics in the United States.

The report they are tasked with writing has the potential to help channel funding to the industry-if it can persuasively and accurately portray the importance of this enabling technology.

At the forum, participants grappled with many challenges confronting the photonics industry, such as economic stability, R&D funding, and the workforce for the future. A major concern was quantifying the impact of the photonics industry on national and global economies.


 SPIE Fellow Philip Stahl discusses the importance of funding optics R&D.

John Greivenkamp, who served on the first Harnessing Light committee in 1998, pointed out that it's "very hard to sell an enabling technology."

Several audience members suggested that the new report focus on the potential for job growth and that it engage industry's assistance in linking political action with technology-based economic growth.

Economic improvements for all

SPIE executive director Eugene Arthurs was among those who stressed the urgency of the task, characterizing the current moment with a metaphor for how impending disaster can cause a major change in behavior.

"The last report was written at a time when we were complacent," Arthurs said. "Now, we're on a 'burning platform.' Significant changes in the metrics and incentives for our R&D spending are needed, as are tax changes to favor investment over the timescale of innovation."

As global economies fight to stay afloat through deep financial cuts, it's important we not lose ground in the advances we've made so far.

We must capture the attention of our politicians and policy makers and engage their partnership in ensuring the continued progress of the photonics industry.

Katarina Svanberg
2011 SPIE President


Harnessing Minds

Join the discussion about the future of the photonics industry. Go to harnessingminds.org and add your comments about the Harnessing Light update.

Take a survey about the photonics industry on this site and SPIE will forward the responses to the National Academies' committee working on the study.

Have a question or comment about this article? Write to us at spieprofessional@spie.org.


DOI: 10.1117/2.4201107.02

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