September 10, 2012

Optics leaders tout role in nation's economy

By: Matthew Daneman

Source: Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

Industry is vital to economy, but feels it lacks respect

If one man embodies the nation’s optics, photonics and imaging companies collectively, it might be Rodney Dangerfield.

“We’d like to get some respect,” University of Rochester Associate Dean Wayne Knox preached to the choir Monday at the Rochester Regional Photonics Cluster’s annual meeting.

About 200 area optics industry executives and educators crowded the Rochester Museum & Science Center for presentations and a panel talk about how important optics is to the local and national economies and yet how it gets short shrift by state and federal policy makers compared to some sexier industries, like nanotechnology.

The centerpiece of the meeting was the presentation of “Optics and Photonics, Essential Technologies for Our Nation,” a report released in August by the National Research Council of the National Academies. The report tries to lay out the huge place optics plays in the nation’s economy —282 publicly traded companies representing $3 billion in revenues and 7.4 million workers, not counting the legions of small, privately held companies.

The report argues for a National Photonics Initiative that would see academic, corporate and government researchers and policy makers jointly create a unified approach to business and governmental research-and-development spending on phototonics.

While the United States currently dominates the optics field in many ways, “that’s not a God-given right,” said Paul McManamon, technical director of the Ladar and Optical Communications Institute at the University of Dayton in Ohio. In terms of broader support for the optics industry, he said, “Germany gets it. China gets it.”

Part of the challenge the optics industry faces for getting more attention from government policy makers is a public relations one, said Kent Gardner, chief economist and research officer at the Center for Governmental Research.

“Saying we’re important to everything is a tough sales job,” Gardner said. “A lot of that is about coming up with a good storyline.”

Alain Kaloyeros, CEO of the State University at Albany’s College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering, which has received hundreds of millions of state tax dollars, “is a very, very effective salesman,” Gardner said.The Regional Photonics Cluster, along with UR, Monroe Community College and High Tech Rochester, is seeking U.S. Energy Department grant money to re-establish the National Center for Optics Manufacturing to allow design and manufacturing work of particular cutting edge optics.

“There is no better place for a national center than here,” said cluster Executive Director Thomas Battley.