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SPIE Photonics Industry Summit pulls a crowd

11 Oct 2023

Around 200 decision makers gathered 27 September 2023 in Washington, DC, for the second annual meeting.

By William G. Schulz, Editor in Chief, Photonics Focus (SPIE)

For a second consecutive year, the SPIE Photonics Industry Summit, held 27 September in Washington, DC, drew a capacity crowd of attendees, ready for open dialog on US science policy and its impacts on the photonics industry.

This year’s meet included a special emphasis on growing the US science and technology workforce, a vital issue for the optics and photonics industry. The Summit’s primary audience was leaders in the US optics and photonics industry along with their counterparts in federal government — officials who, in many cases, have direct responsibility for the rollout of initiatives important to industry like the massively impactful Chips and Science Act, which became law in August 2022.

One politician stepped into the good-natured fray — Rep. Joseph Morelle (D-NY), whose district includes the optics hub of Rochester. Optimax System’s Joe Spillman introduced him as “a great friend of the optics and photonics community.”

Morelle said optics and photonics is a topic “that gets to the core of so many issues facing our country and our world — uplifting regional economies, high-skill and nontraditional workforce development… I am pleased that my colleagues in Congress and other stakeholders in Washington are starting to take notice of the optics and photonics industries.”

On that note, Morelle announced that the Department of Defense had just awarded a $5 million grant to Rochester’s Monroe Community College, which, under the leadership of educator and 2023 SPIE María J. Yzuel Educator Awardee, Alexis Vogt, who has been both a leader and staunch advocate for optics workforce educational programs.

Industry representatives who, throughout the day, introduced speakers and panel discussions included Maria Pace of Google; Robert Walker, Leonardo Electronics US; Ravi Guntupalli, Teledyne Technologies; Mark Tolbert, Toptica Photonics; Joe Spillman, Optimax Systems; John Williams, Quartus Engineering; and Jenn Cable, Thorlabs.

Key issue – workforce development

Also for a second year, Kei Koizumi, principal deputy director for policy in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), delivered the Summit’s keynote address. He began with a core issue — science and technology workforce development — and pledged that the Biden-Harris Administration “is committed to harnessing excellent and equitable stem.”

“We're at a pivotal moment in the science and technology enterprise,” Koizumi continued. “And as we aspire to build the science, technology, and innovation foundations of our economic competitiveness — as the President says, from the middle, out and the bottom, up — that means ensuring that Americans of all backgrounds and education levels have the opportunity to acquire STEM skills and to use them in good jobs.”

The Administration’s R&D priorities, Koizumi said, intersect with the interests of the US optics and photonics enterprise. “This includes our work to reset our relationship with nature — to make the nation more climate resilient, and to provide technology and science-based options to achieve the President’s goal of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions no later than 2050.”

To the priorities list, he added global security and intelligence, an effort to reignite the White House Cancer Moonshot to “end cancer as we know it,” and finally, industrial innovation, “particularly US leadership in semiconductors with an emphasis on promoting domestic manufacturing of the most leading-edge chips.”

Securing semiconductor supply chain

This transitioned perfectly to the next item on the Industry Summit agenda: a panel discussion on semiconductors moderated by David Isaacs of the Semiconductor Industry Association. Devanand Shenoy, who oversees microelectronics programs at the Defense Department (DOD), spoke of the Administration’s efforts to secure the semiconductor global supply chain, and he highlighted the opportunities in silicon photonics that the military wants to leverage, including innovations from AIM Photonics and GlobalFoundries.

Eric K. Lin, interim director of the CHIPS Research and Development program at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, enumerated three goals of his agency’s program: Ensuring US technology leadership, and not just about keeping that lead but pushing forward; accelerating ideas to market, including crossing the several valleys of death that can exist along the way; and developing “that gives us a new generation of skilled workers, all across the different STEM fields.”

Finally, Matthew Borman of the Export Administration Bureau at the Department of Commerce spoke of the need to protect US innovation and keep it from the reach of hostile nations. Adding, “but we do it in a way that doesn't undercut our leadership.”

As the day progressed, Summit attendees heard an update on various directed energy programs at DOD by Frank E. Peterkin, the department’s principal director for directed energy programs.

For a panel discussion on quantum, Gretchen Campbell of OSTP spoke of her office’s efforts across federal agencies, especially via the President’s National Science and Technology Council. She, too, returned to the workforce issue: “As the quantum ecosystem grows, we already see a need for an increased and diverse workforce. Industry is going to play an incredibly important role as we develop that ecosystem.”

In addition to the Department of Energy’s many quantum initiatives across the agency, but especially at the National Laboratories, Ceren Susut, an associate director of advanced scientific computing research, said these include workforce development activities. These include internships and summer schools as well as fellowships for graduate students and postdocs.

The final panel discussion of the day stressed the importance of workforce development and was moderated by Vogt. Education program directors from DOD, DOE, and NASA described a bevy of programs in STEM education meant to reach students as early as elementary school. “There’s still so much work to do,” said Vogt.

As the Summit program ended, Vogt’s words rang true as the attendees continued the conversations during a reception hour to close the day’s festivities. While there is still much to do, the SPIE Industry Summit again informed the photonics industry of the US government's initiatives to grow and fund science R&D while simultaneously showcasing the industry's strength to the policymakers and department heads in DC.

William G. Schulz is Editor in Chief of SPIE’s Photonics Focus.

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