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In a recently released report, Europe’s Age of Light, Photonics21, the public-private partnership advancing photonics research and industry in the European Union (E.U.), has sketched out a sweeping vision for the role of photonics in Europe’s future prosperity and growth. The study, which Photonics21 called a “vision paper,” projected that innovations driven by photonics, particularly in the industrial sector, could add as many as a million new jobs to the European economy, and that “a tripling of annual European [photonics] production to more than €200 billion by 2030 is realistic.”

A key purpose of the report was to put a marker on the table for photonics as a priority in FP9, the European Commission’s next framework program for research and innovation funding. FP9 will succeed Horizon 2020—the previous framework program, which runs from 2014 to 2020—and will cover E.C. research funding for much of the next decade.

Toward future leadership

The report argues that, in part because of support for photonics as one of six key enabling technologies in the Horizon 2020 framework, Europe is “arguably the center of global photonics innovation today.” It estimates that Europe currently owns 15.5 percent of the global photonics market, which it pegs at €447 billion as of 2015.

That share makes Europe, according to the study, second only to China in photonics production. But, the report notes, China has thus far focused largely on commodity items such as photovoltaics, displays and lighting. With China now increasingly upping its own innovation game in photonics, the report suggests, a concerted effort by the E.C., member states and the photonics industry will be required to “translate today’s mastery of key technologies into future leadership in a fast-growing global market.”

Among the key priorities named in the study are fashioning a Europe-wide strategy for photonics focused on “breakthrough innovations” and collaboration across industries and sectors; the building of a “truly European lab-to-fab infrastructure” to speed up innovation and technology transfer; and boosting opportunities for entrepreneurship and for training and education in photonics. The vision paper also argues for “smart and balanced regulation” in the face of new technologies and trends, such as the advent of 5G wireless, that will have “a disproportionate effect on the demand for photonics.”

Eyeing major societal challenges

The bulk of the Europe’s Age of Light report focuses on the role that the photonics industry can play in helping to solve “the major challenges facing Europe and the world today,” assuming that the sector remains a key funding priority under FP9. Among the benefits that the vision paper argues can be delivered by photonics by 2030 are instant diagnosis and targeted treatment of major diseases; better food safety and quality; “accident and congestion-free road transport” through photonically enabled autonomous vehicles; a full-circle, more environmentally sustainable economy; and “a million new jobs” tied to increasingly efficient and cost-competitive manufacturing enabled by photonic technology.

While clearly aimed at setting up photonics as a priority in FP9—which, the report says, “will play an essential role in Europe’s digital transformation—the report also underscores industry’s preeminent place in moving photonics R&D forward. “The industry has invested more than four euros in R&D for every euro of support from the European Commission,” according to the report. And it adds that, in addition to those two sources, “more can be done to leverage other sources of funding and investment, including national R&D budgets and private venture capital.”

One interesting omission from the report is any mention of changes in the political complexion of the E.U. itself. While Great Britain is mentioned as one of the five largest contingents of members of the Photonics21 public-private partnership, it is unclear whether, and how, Britain’s impending exit from the European Union will affect the report’s projections for European photonics as a whole.