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SPIE hits the golden fifty

06 Jan 2005

SPIE sees its 50th anniversary this year. Oliver Graydon spoke to Eugene Arthurs, the society's executive director, about the year ahead and international trends in optics.

From Opto & Laser Europe January 2005

OG: Which optical technologies and markets do you think are going to create a big stir in 2005?

EA: The thing that's getting lots of attention here in the US right now is the flat-screen television. All of a sudden it's caught fire as the consumer purchase of the moment. Many of them are plasma-based but there are also rear-projection versions, which is good news for firms making optics and light sources. We are also seeing larger and larger LCDs, but unlike the RPTVs which help support suppliers of optical parts, this market is dominated by a handful of well-known firms, none of which are US-based. It will be interesting to see if LCDs can make the leap and become cost effective in large sizes of 50 inches or so.

Another area that's exciting at the moment is next-generation DVD, where there are two competing new formats: HD-DVD and Blu-ray. They are both going to have significant commercial impact on the optics sector, in terms of the parts in the drives and the disk-mastering equipment.

Asian manufacturers are very strong in both of the applications you mentioned (displays and optical storage). What is the future for European and US firms in the photonics sector?

Yes, a huge percentage of these products are made in Asia. That is one of the big concerns for the optics community in the US and Western Europe. The question is: where are the future jobs going to be if everything is made in Asia and we are at the consumer end of the business, which requires no training in optics and photonics?

Both Europe and the US have to think carefully about how they can regain a larger share of the manufacturing and retain the segments that they have. I see manufacturing as an important part of a vibrant economy. There is a big trend in the US to follow the UK and become more of a service-based economy and that makes me very nervous. We've got to look at how manufacturing can be done cost-effectively in Europe and the US.

I remember way back in my youth that there was this perception that all that Japan could do was make cheap-and-nasty replicas of our wonderful ideas, and look how that perception has changed. To some extent, that is the status of China today - its strength is low-cost manufacturing and anything that is heavily dependent on cost and manpower is moving out there. The sentiment seems to be that we don't care as we are going to keep ahead by inventing. I think that is a very short-sighted view of things. Ultimately, as the standard of living in China rises, it will become less cost-competitive. The question is, in the meantime, will Europe and the US become a scientifically illiterate wasteland, or will they hang on somehow?

What are some potential solutions?

We're all looking for the answer to this. I think that technical education is going to be very important in that regard. If you look at the success of Ireland, for example, a lot is due to having a very strong educational infrastructure, with a significant fraction of young people actually going into science and technology. An educated workforce is an increasingly important aspect of manufacturing. As technology changes, the adaptability of a workforce is an important aspect of the future. How many people coming out of universities in Europe and the US see their future in manufacturing? It's seen as being unexciting. But if you were to jump over to a similar set of universities in Asia - and there are some really top-notch universities - there are many people with a technical education who do see their future in manufacturing.

What other trends concern you?

A recent trend which should be very worrying for the US is the big decline in the number of Chinese students coming to the US to study. Essentially, the US has pulled in the welcome mat. There is now a perception, which is somewhat misplaced, that it is hard to get into the US, and this is a concern on several fronts. One is the loss of talent in US universities and, beyond that, there is a significant impact on the diplomatic front in terms of international business relations. The internationalization of science - a very precious thing - is under threat, and SPIE is working very hard to sustain it. SPIE has been active in the US for 50 years, Europe for perhaps 30-40 years and China for about 15 years.

Are you seeing changes in the geography of your membership?

We are seeing a disproportionate shift to other regions of the world, but don't necessarily see the membership going down - we are very international. As we speak, SPIE's membership is at a record high of 16,555, of which 65% is in North America. About 20% is in Europe and we are getting a growing membership in Asia [currently 12%]. That said, people in the US are less inclined to join things than they were in the past, and in Asia there is no tradition of joining professional societies. The principle thing about SPIE is that we are always learning and adapting to reflect technical trends and peoples' needs. We are starting to work more with local societies in Korea, Japan and Singapore and to support their activities by adding an international component. In China, where there is no well-established optical organization, we are playing a more dominant role.

Tell me about your events in Asia.

Our largest events in Asia have been in China - such as the Asia Pacific Conference on Optical Communication which is held annually and which we are now hoping to move around Asia. In 2004, it had 1,100 submissions, of which 650 were accepted and presented. The other major event in the region that we organize is Photonics Asia, which has been held in both Beijing and Shanghai. It has grown to 2,300 submissions, of which 1,500-1,600 papers were presented. That is considerably larger than CLEO Europe, for instance, and is approaching the scale of Photonics West. We have won a lot of local respect by trying to make international connections for the local scientific community. We put on a lot of meetings in Europe and, increasingly, Asia, to serve the growing membership there. It's important because it connects the membership throughout the world to the reality of what is going on in these regions.

SPIE enjoys it 50th anniversary in 2005. How do you plan to celebrate?

There will be a special emphasis on our 50th anniversary at all major events throughout the year, that will culminate with our annual meeting. It's amazing to remember that when SPIE was founded, the laser did not exist. But we are not just celebrating the past, we are also looking to the next 50 years.

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