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Elevate, advocate, repeat

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Deriding the uneasy relationship between science and politics makes for good sport and offers almost as much smug satisfaction as mocking congressional inefficiency. But science and politics are deeply entangled in practice, and often in purpose.

The preceding year gave the scientific community ample opportunity to roll its eyes at the usual congressional dithering, partisanship, and horse-trading, while two bills supporting science and technology teetered on the precipice. Then, almost suddenly, this summer, the 117th U.S. Congress passed the CHIPS and Science Act, followed shortly by the Inflation Reduction Act.

The two bills — now signed into law — fuel much needed momentum in photonics end markets ranging from semiconductor manufacturing to clean energy research. Together, they also authorize multibillion-dollar budget increases over the next five years for multiple federal research agencies. The CHIPS Act further paves the road for the NSF to create a technology directorate to advance critical science initiatives in quantum information science and workforce training.

Compulsive skeptics might argue that the final draft of each bill watered down the original proposals, and much of the research funding that each authorizes remains subject to review by congressional panels. But it’s worth taking a moment to step back and recognize that getting something good is better than wishing for something perfect.

Those who advocate for science and technology in the halls of power could use a little optimism. This applies as well to those who advocate for the photonics industry, which, despite generating immense value in downstream markets, is neither a well-defined nor well-understood sector.

Consider: The latest edition of SPIE’s Optics & Photonics Industry Report, released in August, estimates that light-enabled products and services generate between $7 trillion and $10 trillion of value annually. That’s roughly equivalent to 11% of the global economy.

And yet, as SPIE’s report further observes, governments lack a clear definition of the industry. Photonics does not appear among the NAICS and NACE economic tracking codes that the U.S. and Europe respectively use to quantify sector revenues, which means other sectors are getting credit for the value this industry provides. A sampling by SPIE of 2750 photonics companies found them registered under 259 different NAICS codes.

If this summer’s legislative successes offer hope to the photonics industry’s political advocates, the sector’s lingering obscurity demands their resolve.

With this goal in mind, SPIE timed the release of its updated report with a Sept. 21 summit in Washington D.C., at which it will host U.S. government leaders and more than 100 photonics industry representatives to discuss federal policy and funding. In addition to raising the industry’s profile, SPIE’s stated goal is to better understand U.S. government priorities.

Photonics Media, a sponsor of the event, will be on site to cover the proceedings and to do our part to elevate the visibility of this industry’s value to internal and external stakeholders. Stay tuned to for our coverage.

Photonics Spectra
Sep 2022

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