President's Letter

2016 SPIE President Robert Lieberman on how photonics 'takes the initiative.'

01 January 2016
Robert A. Lieberman

Every January brings a year full of new possibilities, coupled with opportunities to build on prior accomplishments. I feel especially lucky this month; as the 2016 SPIE President, I have been given a wonderful opportunity to help carry forward the tremendous momentum that’s been building in the light-science and technology community over the past several years.

The excitement is palpable. Recently, we’ve seen breakthroughs in fundamental and applied light science; steady progress in photonics and optical engineering on size scales from the sub-nanometer to exponentially large; and rapidly accelerating development of new optical and photonic systems for applications ranging from astronomical telescopes to medical diagnostics.

Equally impressive has been the growing public awareness that (as SPIE members have always known!) our field is fundamental to modern society and critically important to the future of the world.

The study and application of light has become “visible.” In 2012, the US National Research Council published a report called “Optics and Photonics, Essential Technologies for Our Nation.” In 2014, the Nobel Prizes in both chemistry and physics were awarded for photonics innovations. The International Year of Light and Light-based Technologies was celebrated around the world in 2015 with an outpouring of scientific meetings and public events unique in UNESCO’s history.


Some of the most rapid progress in awareness of our field’s importance has been in the area of public policy. Early in 2012, anticipating the release of the US report, SPIE volunteers and staff began considering ways our members could help implement its recommendations. One key recommendation was to “develop an integrated initiative in photonics that seeks to bring together academic, industrial, and government researchers, managers, and policy makers.”

SPIE and the Optical Society (OSA) immediately convened meetings involving participants from all three sectors. This led to creation of a sustained National Photonics Initiative (NPI), bringing members of SPIE, OSA, the Laser Institute of America, IEEE Photonics Society, and the American Physical Society together with other researchers and business leaders to engage policy makers in intensive dialogue.

This ongoing effort has generated a clear understanding of the nature and importance of our field at the highest levels of government, resulting in some notable achievements.

NPI’s first major accomplishment was to lead the effort to establish a dedicated facility to rapidly prototype new designs and manufacturing techniques for photonic integrated circuits. This activity has now resulted in establishment of the American Institute for Manufacturing Integrated Photonics (AIM Photonics), a $610 million optical chip “foundry” backed by a 124-partner consortium. Funded by private industry, US federal funds, and the State of New York, AIM Photonics will give researchers and product developers an unparalleled ability to create light-guiding circuits for use in communications, sensing, basic science, and other applications.

In another effort, NPI facilitated the formation of the Photonics in Neuroscience Group (PING) by bringing academic and industrial researchers together with policymakers. The group developed a technology roadmap to support the US government’s Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) initiative and committed $30 million in private funding to enhance optics-related research under that initiative.

Building on these successes in computing, communications, and biophotonics, NPI participants are working with government agencies and lawmakers to increase awareness and coordinate resource allocation for other important work.

Notably, NPI-organized teams are now working with policy leaders to tackle the development of optical sensors for energy and environmental applications; high-performance computing; high-energy lasers for multiple uses; and (perhaps most important) viable education programs that can produce the photonic technicians and engineers of the future.


This remarkable progress has not been confined to the United States. The European Union has declared photonics one of six “Key Enabling Technologies” and budgeted nearly €100 million a year for optics and photonics in its multi-year R&D plan, Horizon 2020.

Individual European governments have allocated additional resources, supporting fundamental research capabilities such as at the €850 million Extreme Light Infrastructure network and in other applications-oriented photonics R&D.

These developments show that the world is beginning to realize that in the 21st century, photonics will be as important as electronics was in the 20th. Continued public engagement by optical scientists and engineers, through NPI and other channels, will ensure that the necessary resources are there to support this critical transition in 2016, and beyond.

Robert A. Lieberman
2016 SPIE President

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