Good news for European photonics funding

Sept. 19, 2019
Within the next two years German and European funding schemes for photonics will change. Intense lobbying has had an effect; photonics is back on the agenda.

In Europe we face enormous political changes. Beside the much discussed Brexit, there is a new European Commission coming up, formed to decide upon “Horizon Europe,” a € 100 billion funding program for research and innovation. So far, photonics has not been a crucial part of the program, which caused an outcry in the community and intense communication efforts from community associations such as EPIC and Photonics21.

In Germany, another administrative move raised further concerns: the administration changed the name of the department in the BMBF, the German Federal Ministry for Education and Research, from “Photonik / Optische Technologien” (Photonics / Optical technologies) to “Quantensysteme / Postdigitale Computer” (Quantum systems / Post-digital computers). What about funding for industrial laser technology? That was just one of the questions which came up.

Some statements at the Annual Meeting of the German trade association spectaris on September 12th gave hope for changes in both the German and the European arena. First, Werner Steinhögl, from the responsible photonics group at the EU administration, gave an update on the status of potential photonics funding from Brussels. So far, there has been € 700 million allocated for various photonics funding projects throughout 2014 to 2021.

The new “Horizon Europe” plan is based on three pillars: (1) Excellent science, (2) global challenges and European industrial competitiveness, and (3) innovative Europe. The plan allots about € 26 billion for the first pillar, € 53 billion for the second, and € 14 billion for the third.

While these numbers are impressive, it seems difficult to tap the resources. Steinhögl’s directorate “CONNECT” leads 5 out of 44 partnerships in Horizon Europe; one of them will be photonics. Although this is subject to the commission’s approval, Steinhögl showed optimism that photonics will succeed and be funded again.

A major question now is how the community can influence the list of topics to be funded. “Photonics21 will remain the preferred channel,” said Steinhögl in a subsequent interview. A series of workshops are being conducted to collect ideas and prepare a list with priorities for the funding programs; the report will be submitted to Steinhögl’s group by the end of 2019 to get a final list by mid of 2020.

In fact, Photonics21 has already announced a request for a doubling of the budget from € 100 million per year to € 200 million, or € 1.4 billion over the course of the next research funding initiative.

German ministry begins new strategy process

Frank Schlie, the photonics department head from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, had good news, too. Confronted with the change of the department name from photonics to quantum systems, he responded, “Funding policy develops evolutionary, not revolutionary. What counts in the end is the application.”

In other words, although the new name of his department spurred concern throughout the non-quantum-photonics community, the relation between general photonics funding and funding of quantum technologies is currently about 90% to 10%. Schlie assumes that this may change towards 30% for quantum technology in the future. The current photonics funding programs runs until 2021, while quantum programs run to the end of the current legislation, i.e. 2022.

For the future, Schlie announced a new strategy process with his advisory board starting in October 2019. Whether or not the process will lead to a new label for his department is open. This will depend on the discussion, and he will follow the process from outside, since he is retiring early next year. But the concerns of the community have been well received and the advisory board headed by Trumpf’s Peter Leibinger will be heard as well.

Overall, the audience of about 50 leading figures from the German photonics community seemed cautiously optimistic. The lobbying efforts of Nobel prizewinners and industry leaders have led to progress in Brussels, but at the same time it seems necessary to invest more effort to retain the role of photonics in Europe as we know it. And, as Steinhögl said, photonics is a field that still needs more explanation.

About the Author

Andreas Thoss | Contributing Editor, Germany

Andreas Thoss is the Managing Director of THOSS Media (Berlin) and has many years of experience in photonics-related research, publishing, marketing, and public relations. He worked with John Wiley & Sons until 2010, when he founded THOSS Media. In 2012, he founded the scientific journal Advanced Optical Technologies. His university research focused on ultrashort and ultra-intense laser pulses, and he holds several patents.

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