Devising a blueprint to fund optical science

How can optical science and engineering hel¥improve US society? What are the "grand challenges" that optical science should tackle in the coming decades? And what roles should government, industry, and academia play in meeting those challenges?

Jul 1st, 1995

Devising a blueprint to fund optical science

Vincent A. Kiernan, Washington Editor

How can optical science and engineering hel¥improve US society? What are the "grand challenges" that optical science should tackle in the coming decades? And what roles should government, industry, and academia play in meeting those challenges?

These sweeping questions are all part of a new study launched recently by the National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academy of Sciences. With financial support from several US government agencies, the new NRC study has the overall goal of assessing the field of optical science and engineering and recommending a blueprint for how it should develo¥in the future.

The study could profoundly influence how the US government spends its research funds on optical sciences, helping federal agencies set priorities for the projects that they will support financially, says Tom McIlrath of the National Science Foundation (NSF). The "grand challenges" also could hel¥researchers pick directions for their own research, he says.

The study is being conducted by the NRC`s newly formed Committee on Optical Science and Engineering. The panel is chaired by Charles Shank, director of the US Energy Department`s Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory (Berkeley, CA). Vice chair is Aram Mooradian of Micracor (Acton, MA).

The COSE report is due in 1997. To prepare the report, the committee plans to hold a series of hearings at which invited experts will address five broad topics: manufacturing; information technology; optics in health care and life sciences; energy, space and environment; and research, development, engineering, education and training. The expert witnesses will be selected from both industry and academia to give a broad and dee¥view of the needs and promise of optical science and engineering, Mooradian said during the CLEO/QELS `95 meeting in Baltimore, MD.

A key challenge facing the COSE panel is documenting the economic impact of optical science and engineering, Mooradian said. If optical science doesn`t produce many jobs or other economic benefits, then there is little argument for spending more federal money in the field, he said.

Tracking technology transfer

Initially, the study panel will try to determine exactly how much money is spent in the USA on development of optical and photonic technology, Mooradian said. Next, the committee will try to determine the extent to which photonic technologies are used in other technologies such as in manufacturing, an application of optical technology that "enables massive markets," Mooradian said. Overall, the COSE panel wants to reconstruct how new technologies developed in academia find their way into industry, Mooradian said.

The panel is keenly interested in getting a wide range of views from scientists and engineers in lasers, photonics and other optical fields--both in academia and industry (see box). The committee is looking for suggestions for witnesses to testify at its hearings as well as feedback regarding whether it has covered all important areas. "Without the right areas to look at and without the right people, the report will just sit on a shelf, and we don`t want that," Mooradian said.

The COSE study would seem to cover ground that, in part, has already been explored by the Optoelectronics Development Industry Association, which has been drafting technology roadmaps for the industry. Arpad Bergh, executive director of OIDA, says the group`s roadmaps tend to focus on three-year horizons. The COSE study likely will take a much longer view and include areas not covered by OIDA roadmaps, such as materials and manufacturing infrastructure. OIDA has offered to supply its studies to COSE, but, as of early June, a mechanism for doing that hadn`t been decided, Bergh says.

NSF proposal

The COSE study is being launched a year after the National Science Foundation convened a panel of optical scientists for a brainstorming session to propose changes in the way the NSF provides support for optical science and engineering. That panel of scientists suggested that the NSF create an agency-wide interdisciplinary program in optical sciences that would encourage researchers to pursue cutting-edge projects in optical science and engineering. NSF officials said at CLEO/QELS `95 that those recommendations generally were well received at NSF, but agency officials are still mulling over the feasibility of creating such an interdisciplinary program. "We hope that we will see our way clear to being able to make an effort in this area," says the NSF`s Larry Goldberg.

At CLEO/QELS `95, Goldberg said that NSF doesn`t expect to get any new money for Congress to launch an interdisciplinary program in optical sciences. That means that the funds to pay for such a program would have to be diverted from other NSF projects. "It is not going to be based on new funds," Goldberg said.

And there may not be that much money available to scavenge to start a new program. After years of increases for NSF, many Republicans would like to see the foundation`s budget level off or decline. The hesitancy of NSF officials to commit to the new program is directly due to the uncertainty that looms over the NSF`s budget. "We all look through the same murky glass," Goldberg said. n

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