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UNESCO board backs 'International Year of Light'

25 Oct 2012

Executive board of the United Nations' educational and cultural wing backs proposal for 2015.

Optics and photonics technologies look certain to be recognized through an “International Year of Light” slated for 2015, after the proposal received backing from the executive board of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) last week.

Though a final declaration by the UN is still required, that is expected to be straightforward and UNESCO’s support paves the way for a full year of activities to celebrate and raise awareness of optical technologies, with planning already under way.

More than 40 scientific societies and other institutions (including SPIE, the publisher of optics.org) have been pushing for the initiative since 2009.

Now, following approval at the 190th session of the UNESCO executive board in Paris, detailed planning for a co-ordinated series of activities in 2015 is set to begin, in parallel with the preparation of a formal request to the UN’s General Assembly.

Widespread support
The resolution to declare 2015 as the International Year of Light was proposed by Ghana, Mexico, Russia and New Zealand. The National Autonomous University of Mexico, which hosts the Museum of Light, is one of the institutions backing the idea, along with African Laser Center and the Ghana Academy of Arts and Sciences, Europe’s Photonics21 organization, the Optical Society (OSA) and many more.

Paul Buah-Bassuah from Ghana’s Laser and Fibre Optics Centre at the University of Cape Coast introduced the proposal to the board, saying: “The science and technology of light have revolutionized medicine, have opened up international communication via the Internet, and are central to linking cultural, economic and political aspects of global society."

“Advances in light science and technology are crucial for sustainable development, preserving cultural heritage, and addressing climate change,” added Buah-Bassuah, an SPIE Fellow.

As well as being adopted by the UNESCO executive board, the resolution was co-signed by a further 28 board members: Angola, Bangladesh, Brazil, Burkina Faso, China, Congo, Cuba, Djibouti, Ecuador, Ethiopia, Gabon, Gambia, Kenya, Indonesia, Italy, Malawi, Nigeria, Peru, the Republic of Korea, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Thailand, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, the USA, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe. Other member states to support the initiative included Hungary, Serbia and South Africa.

In a statement announcing the UNESCO support, the European Physical Society (EPS) said: “As light becomes a key cross-cutting discipline of science in the 21st century, it is essential that its importance is fully appreciated. It is equally vital that the brightest young minds from all areas of the world continue to be attracted to careers in this field.”

“Industries based on light are major economic drivers; they create jobs, and provide solutions to global challenges in energy, education, agriculture and health,” the EPS added.

Final declaration
The idea for the International Year of Light had received initial backing from the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP) at its own general assembly meeting nearly a year ago.

EPS president-elect John Dudley had told optics.org ahead of that IUPAP meeting that one of the key aims was to address the fact that despite the widespread influence of optical technologies, they remained little understood or appreciated outside of the photonics field.

He also said that the 2015 program would go beyond the celebratory nature of the 2010 “Laserfest” events that marked the 50th anniversary of the invention of the laser. Themes that are likely to form the basis of the year-long activities include: the science of light; key applications of photonics; solar power and advanced lighting; and the recognition of pioneers in the field.

Following UNESCO’s backing, Dudley said that although the formal go-ahead for the International Year of Light in 2015 was “not quite a done deal”, the widespread support received should lead to a final declaration by the UN in early 2013.

SPIE’s executive director Eugene Arthurs added: “Through this action, UNESCO has joined in advocacy of the profound importance of light in every facet of life." As examples of the transformational nature of photonics in the developing world, he cited the use of inexpensive solar-powered solid-state lighting technology to replace toxic kerosene lamps, satellite remote sensing to track crop health, major storms and underground water sources, and non-invasive screening of infants for life-threatening breathing or digestive conditions.

The activities of the International Year of Light will be co-ordinated by an International Steering Committee to pull together the wide range of international partners involved, including learned societies, science and technology platforms, educational institutions, non-governmental and inter-governmental organizations at both the national and international level.

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