National Research Council Report on Optics in the 21st Century

Issue 98-3 OPTICS-TECHPOLICY May 15, 1998

Committee on Optical Science and Engineering releases NRC report
Harnessing Light: Optical Science and Engineering for the 21st Century.

Item 1: “Harnessing Light” Report Predicts Optics Revolution
[Source: Optical Society of America Press Release]


WASHINGTON, DC – A new report by a committee of the National Research Council (NRC) has predicted that harnessing the properties of light will lead to a technology revolution having a pervasive impact on life in the next century.

The dramatic vision, along with recommendations to help the nation’s research community maximize the potential of optical science and engineering, were previewed in San Francisco today by Charles V. Shank, director of the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, at the Conference on Lasers and Electro-Optics and the International Quantum Electronics Conference (CLEOr/IQEC).

Shank was chair of the Research Council’s Committee on Optical Science and Engineering, which produced the NRC report — “Harnessing Light: Optical Science and Engineering for the 21st Century.” An overview of the report — which contains the executive summary, conclusions, and recommendations — can be ordered from the National Academy Press (see below). The full report is expected soon.

“Harnessing Light” describes optics as a critical enabler for technology that promises to revolutionize the fields of communications, medicine, energy, efficiency, defense, manufacturing, and the frontiers of science into the next century. The report recommends: Congress should challenge industry and the federal regulatory agencies to ensure the rapid development and deployment of a broadband fiber-to-the-home infrastructure.

The importance of optical science in biomedical research aimed at understanding human disease should be recognized by establishing a National Institute of Health (NIH) study section dedicated to this area. NIH should raise the priority for funding innovative optical technologies for medicine and medical research. An initiative should be launched to identify the optical signatures of human biological processes and substances for application to noninvasive

The Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Electric Power Research Institute, and the National Electrical Manufacturers Association should coordinate their efforts to create a single program to enhance the efficiency and efficacy of new lighting sources and delivery systems, with the goal of reducing U.S. consumption of electricity for lighting by a factor of two over the next decade, thus saving about $10 billion to $20 billion per year in energy costs.
DOD should stress investment in R&D on key optical technologies such as photonics, sensors, and high-power tunable lasers to gain maximum defense competitive advantage. Special attention should also be given to investment in low-cost manufacturing of precision aspheric, diffractive, and conformal optics.

Participation in the DARPA-sponsored Precision Laser Machining Consortium should be extended to other optically assisted manufacturing areas by establishing a test facility in a service center scenario.

Progress in materials science and engineering is critical to progress in optics. DARPA should therefore coordinate and invest in optical research on new materials and material processing methods with the goal of maintaining a stream of materials breakthroughs.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology should become a leader in the development of international optics standards by coordinating the efforts of U.S. industry and the domestic and foreign standards-setting communities.

Multiple agencies should form a working group to support optics as a crosscutting initiative similar to the recent initiative in high-performance computing and communications systems.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) should develop an ongoing, agency-wide, separately funded initiative to support multidisciplinary research and education in optics.

Universities should encourage multidisciplinarity in optics education, cutting across departmental boundaries, and should provide research opportunities at all levels, from the bachelor’s degree to the doctorate and from basic science to applied technology.

Professional societies should continue to expand their commitment to professional education in optics. Accordingly, they should work to strengthen optics as a recognized crosscutting area of science and technology through the recently established Coalition for Photonics and Optics (CPO). Professional societies should also evaluate optics programs and jointly produce an annual guide to educational programs in optics.

CPO, a coalition of eleven scientific, engineering, and trade organizations with the mission “to promote the interests of the optics and photonics community,” will meet in May or June to review and access the recommendations in “Harnessing Light” and develop an action plan to disseminate and romote the report’s findings. The members of CPO include the: Arizona Optics Industry Association; American Precision Optics Manufacturers Association; Colorado Photonics Industry Association; Laser & Electro-Optics Manufacturers Association; Lasers & Electro-Optics Society of the IEEE; Laser Institute of America; National Network for Electro-Optics Manufacturing Technology; Optoelectronics Industry Development Association; Optical Society of America; SPIE – International Society for Optical Engineering; and United States Display Consortium.

Harnessing Light: Optical Science and Engineering for the 21st Century” can be ordered through the National Academy Press, 2101 Constitution Ave. NW, Lockbox 285, Washington, DC 20055; by calling 800-624-6242; or by going to

Multidisciplinary ElectroOptics Initiative
The NSF Initiative in Multidisciplinary ElectroOptics Research
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