NSF to fund program linking optics and engineering

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is starting an experiment, and optics will be the guinea pig. Trying to find a way to bridge the gaps separating various academic disciplines, the NSF has launched a new interdisciplinary program in optical science and engineering.

Sep 1st, 1995

NSF to fund program linking optics and engineering

Vincent Kiernan, Washington Editor

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is starting an experiment, and optics will be the guinea pig. Trying to find a way to bridge the gaps separating various academic disciplines, the NSF has launched a new interdisciplinary program in optical science and engineering.

Researchers from a wide variety of fields--such as physics, materials science, and biology--will be encouraged to form teams and apply for funding from the NSF. The agency expects to dole out about $12 million in grants in FY1996, with awards ranging from $100,000 to $600,000 annually for three years.

NSF officials hope that the lure of grant money will spur teamwork by researchers from disparate disciplines who otherwise would have little incentive to collaborate, says Albert Harvey, program director for lightwave technology in the NSF`s division of electrical and communication systems. That teamwork could bring new insights into scientific and technical issues in optical science and engineering and result in important advances.

"Optics is at a point for an exponential takeoff. The whole field is now poised for a very rapid evolution," says Robert Byer, a Stanford University professor who chaired an NSF worksho¥last May that recommended the new interdisciplinary research program. The NSF`s new foray into optics could be enough to trigger that takeoff, he says.

Byer`s worksho¥declared that optical science and engineering is "an enabling technology that will allow leapfrog advances in many fields." The participants in the workshop, including representatives from government, industry, and academia, called on the NSF to create a new program in optical science and engineering that would foster interdisciplinary collaborations by small teams of re searchers.

The NSF`s new program, announced in late July, closely follows the workshop`s suggestions. "Optical science and engineering is an enabling field with demonstrated contributions to many technologies and diverse areas of science and engineering: in the use of optics and optoelectronics in information and communications, in the development of novel materials and devices, in the control of chemical reaction pathways, in the elucidation of quantum processes with laser light, in metrology for precision manufacturing processes, in optical instrumentation advances and their profound influence in the physical, biological, and environmental sciences, and in the development of an educated and skilled work force," the NSF proclaims in its announcement of the new program.

Partnering for grants

Grants will be limited to projects that "deal with fundamental science and engineering issues that go beyond the scope of traditional disciplinary proposals," according to the announcement. The agency lists seven general research areas that are likely to meet that description: information and communications; biology; biomedical engineering; optical and photonic materials and devices; fundamental optical interactions; optical processes and manufacturing; and instrumentation and sensing.

The NSF`s announcement lists some specific examples of projects that would probably interest the agency, including photo-active biochemical probes, advanced telescope systems, solid-state laser materials, technologies for optoelectronic data storage, and optical sensing of the environment.

The NSF also is encouraging researchers to form partnerships with industry or government in applying for the grants. Harvey predicts that the grant program will have a "ripple effect," fostering collaborations in optics between academia and industry, whether or not an NSF grant has been received.

Scientists interested in securing one of the grants must submit a brief preproposal by Oct. 16. NSF officials will decide which projects merit further consideration and will then request more extensive proposals from those scientists.*

NSF officials have not decided whether the optics program will continue past 1996, Harvey says. That decision will depend largely on whether Congress gives the NSF enough money to continue it, he says. And there is a risk that enthusiasm for the project will cool. "What was fashionable last year isn`t always fashionable this year," he says.

Byer says that the $12 million in funding for 1996 is "a good start" for the program. He says NSF officials had a hard time birthing the program because the NSF is structured in terms of traditional academic disciplines. "The NSF has very narrow steeples of excellence, and optics falls between those steeples," Byer says. That, in turn, has made it difficult for scientists to get grants from the NSF, Byer says. "If you weren`t pursuing research in one of those narrowly defined areas, then you were out of luck."

If the new NSF program in optics works well, attracting proposals for important interdisciplinary research, its success may convince NSF officials to try interdisciplinary projects in other areas of science and engineering, Byer says. He is confident that the potential for dramatic advances makes optical science and engineering a good selection as the test case for the effectiveness of multidisciplinary research. "We didn`t choose optics for this by accident," he says. n

* For further information, contact the Office of Multi disciplinary Activities in the Directorates for Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the NSF, tel. (703) 306-1800, e-mail: os&e@nsf.gov.

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