13 May 2011

National Academy Study known as Harnessing Light 2

For several years SPIE has been pushing for an update of the impressive 1998 National Research Council Study, “Harnessing Light. Optical Science and Engineering for the 21st Century”. (You can find the executive summary of this study at http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=6404#toc or you can purchase the 339 page study from the National Academy press.)

The study did raise the profile of optics and photonics, but mostly outside the U.S. It did stimulate funding, activity and a series of strategic documents, notably in Germany and from the EU. The new report has a somewhat different emphasis, captured in the “statement of task”.

Much has changed since the work done by the “Committee on Optical Science and Engineering” in the mid 90s, including the infamous bubble that soured much of Wall Street on anything optical. Google hired its first employee in September 1998. The U.S. led in manufacturing solar energy systems and much else.

Optics and photonics has been recognized as an enabling technology, or “A Pervasive Enabler” as described in HL1. As we moved into what some believe is the century of the photon, the social impact has grown; think internet, digital photography, displays of all sizes, optical techniques for genomics, and the much larger (but still insignificant) solar energy. Awareness of photonics has not grown; we remain invisible to the general public.

The original report made a number of recommendations. If they had been acted on, then there would be a different economic pattern for optics and photonics today. We can’t undo the past but now with a new study we can influence the future. What recommendations would you make today?

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