09 August 2011

Speak out for photonics and invent the future

So why should you care about a National Academies study on optics and photonics?

Besides the reality that optics and photonics has changed life for us all and has so much more to offer, the answer depends on what you are doing and hope to do in optics and photonics.

Does your future depend on decisions made at the federal, state, or market level (e.g., VCs, banks, or angel investors)?

If Congress, forced to find cuts, decided to slash Department of Energy science funding, NASA funding, National Science Foundation funding, or Department of Defense funding, would it affect you?

Would new financial or trade regulations hurt your job prospects?

Would action on solar energy or advanced lighting speed the transition to a sustainable world?

Hardworking individuals at some of the highest federal levels — Congress and the Administration chief among them — are overwhelmed with appeals for support from a plethora of interest groups, including individuals from the photonics sector on occasion. I have been with a variety of groups of scientists and engineers meeting with Congressional representatives and senators, their staff, or the staff of entities such as the House Science, Space and Technology Committee to argue for support for science and technology (S&T) and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education.

Even with these efforts, we are regularly chastised for our lack of visibility and activity, and — for some reason —frequently contrasted with the beer industry: The two-million-plus S&T community are less visible in Congressional offices than the 60,000 or so energetic representatives of the nation’s beer distributors.

It may be abhorrent to our culture to be the squeaky wheel in political circles (engineers in particular preferring to oil the bearings). But as we look at national belt tightening, it is becoming more important to communicate our value and point out what social economic and security benefits optics and photonics has already brought, and the extraordinary impact to come.

Few of us, and fewer in Congress, ever think about the science and technology behind switching on a light. Our smartphones deliver immediate information over the photonics-powered internet on beautiful displays enabled by processors and memory manufactured by laser lithography. But the lack of appreciation of what we optical scientists and engineers have wrought is a topic for another day.

The multitasking Congressperson or Congressional aide that I hope you will soon visit already will be thinking about the torrent of interest groups flowing by throughout the day, many with very plausible and well-crafted stories. But how many will be able to make an impact with a National Academies study that backs their story, that makes the case?

The Academies were set up to give independent advice to government — a government which is made up mostly of individuals with little scientific background — and helps them see through the clutter of demands and interest groups. This is needed more than ever. National Academies studies help shape policy and help determine funding and investments.

Wise use of our more constrained resources is important to us all. Photonics science and technology should be favored, not because we love it, but because the potential for return on investment — social, financial, scientific, medical, and environmental — is quite extraordinary.

It is crucial that the study capture the contributions and future of photonics. This is a unique opportunity to help the National Academies committee with this formidable task. This is your opportunity to influence — to invent — your future.

That’s why you should care.

What can you do?

Click on this link to take the survey, and share your perspectives with the Harnessing Light committee.

And if you'll be in San Diego later this month, you can share your ideas with the committee in person.

Several members of the Harnessing Light committee will attend a town-hall style forum at SPIE Optics + Photonics in the San Diego Convention Center, 5:30-7 p.m. on Monday 22 August. The public is welcome to attend.

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