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US Commitment Lags in Atomic, Molecular and Optical Sciences

Photonics Spectra
Sep 2006
Anne L. Fischer

The US government must deepen its commitment to research in atomic, molecular and optical sciences to maintain a leadership role in these areas, according to a report released by the Washington-based National Research Council of the National Academies.

The report, “Controlling the Quantum World,” identifies key areas of opportunity in these disciplines, among them x-ray free-electron lasers, coherent quantum gases, quantum computing and communication, the imaging and coherent control of quantum processes, and the control of the coherence of ultrafast lasers and ultracold atoms.


Federal spending for the sciences has shown little growth over the past decade, with the exception of biomedical research. Used with permission of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The study indicates that, in the past, these research efforts have benefited from funding increases at the US Department of Energy, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the National Science Foundation. It cautions that a decrease in overall funding, and especially a decrease in funding at the US Department of Defense for research in atomic, molecular and optical science and basic research, could negatively affect the nation’s capacity for technological advancement and, ultimately, its economy.

Although funding to these sciences has decreased in the US, a single country has yet to match the overall US program, the report states. Europe as a whole is poised to compete with the US in all research areas, however, because of the support of the European Union and the efforts of individual member states. The report states that, in some cases, large investments in atomic, molecular and optical sciences by relatively small countries such as Germany and Austria surpass US investments in even its most important laboratories.

In Asia, equally impressive financial commitments are being made. Japan is funding a $15 million program to develop a cold atom and quantum information research group at the University of Tokyo, and China is developing a five-year plan for research on cold atoms, quantum optics and quantum information science.

The number of natural science and engineering doctoral degrees granted in the US is surpassed by the numbers in both Europe and Asia. In addition, only about half of the degrees granted in the US are earned by US citizens. Used by permission of the American Physical Society.

Besides maintaining an adequate level of funding to remain competitive in the global technological arena, the US should encourage foreign collaboration and stay informed about scientific projects throughout the world, according to the report. It also suggests that the government consider how its “deemed export” rules — concerning the “export” of technological information to foreign nationals in the US — can be applied without negatively affecting research and development efforts.

The technologies and applications that result from research in the atomic, molecular and optical sciences have the potential to greatly benefit the general population. They can help meet energy needs, mitigate health threats and strengthen national security.

Recommending ways that the US might realize its potential in these areas, the report calls for a substantial increase in federal funding in the physical sciences to strengthen research programs and to improve education in physics and math at all levels. Attracting US students to these disciplines also is vitally important, according to the report. The number of students in the US who are choosing to work toward a career in the physical sciences is very low, and the situation is likely to lead to an “expertise gap” between the US and other countries.

The substantial increase in the cost of scientific instrumentation and the resulting strain on research budgets also is discussed. It is recommended that the government recognize these new costs and that it adjust its funding plans accordingly.

The 198-page report, the second in a series of studies on the current state of physics science in the US, will be available in the fall from the National Academies Press (

atomicBasic ScienceBusinessCommunicationsdefenselight speedmolecularoptical sciences

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