Aaron J. Hand
The National Research Council's Committee on Optical Science and Engineering has published a report, Harnessing Light: Optical Science and Engineering for the 21st Century, pointing to optics as the leader of the next technology revolution.
The optics field is so broad and encompassing, noted committee chairman Charles V. Shank of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, that the committee decided to focus its efforts on leading-edge developments. The report recommends that agencies support optics as a technology that cuts across several disciplines and that universities develop multidisciplinary optics education.
The report lists information technology and telecommunications; health care and life sciences; sensing, lighting and energy; national defense; and industrial manufacturing. It devotes a section to each discipline, examining the impact of optics on those industries, and recommending ways in which the US can take advantage of technical opportunities.
"Probably the most compelling observation was the pervasiveness of optics," Shank said during a preview of the report at the Conference on Lasers and Electro-Optics and the International Quantum Electronics Conference in San Francisco in May. "Optics appears in virtually every aspect of science and technology."
As such, optics is often the enabler, Shank said. As the report points out, "An investment of a few hundred million dollars in optical fiber technology has enabled a trillion-dollar worldwide communications revolution." Although the lasers in a telephone system account for only a fraction of the system cost, without them the system would be useless, the report says.
Lost in the sciences
Because optics is not typically the main solution, it can be difficult to find support and development mechanisms. Instead, optics remains embedded -- perhaps lost -- among other disciplines. Shank noted, for example, that the University of California at Berkeley does not offer a course devoted to optics. So the committee's report set out to determine how the nation should support and strengthen the field, and how it should nurture a field that has no academic or disciplinary home.
The committee says US industry and government have failed to support standard-setting activities, putting the nation at a disadvantage globally. The report recommends that the National Institute of Standards and Technology lead the development of international optics standards.
In terms of research and education, the report says, "multiple agencies should form a working group to support optics as a crosscutting initiative." Ultimately, optics should become a discipline in its own right.