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[Image: Courtesy of Photonics Scotland]

11 April 2019—This spring, the U.K. government has struggled—very publicly—to find a political solution to the Brexit mess. Yet there have been signs that the photonics sector in the U.K. and its constituent countries continues to look ahead.

One recent, interesting development happened this week, when the Scottish Optoelectronics Association (SOA) released a “Vision for 2030” strategic paper, and announced that it would be re-branding itself under the new name Photonics Scotland. The vision paper—which echoes in spirit a similar document issued in late 2017 by the European technology platform Photonics21—sets the ambitious goal of tripling the size of the Scottish photonics sector by 2030.

To get there, the document recommends a variety of steps, many of them tied to building the expertise and diversity of the photonics workforce and to the creation of a Scottish national photonics initiative to advance public recognition of “the role of photonics in Scotland’s society.”

“Scottish Photonics Week”

The occasion for the vision paper’s release is the 25th anniversary of the birth of SOA, a photonics-sector support network now managed (under its new photonics-centric name) by the enabling-technologies trade organization Technology Scotland. For 2019, the anniversary event fortuitously coincides with the annual general meeting of the European Photonics Industry Consortium (EPIC), which begins today in Glasgow, and with the annual meeting of the International Optoelectronics Association, also taking place this year in Glasgow. SOA has rolled these events together into a week-long series that it’s calling “Scottish Photonics Week.”

A highlight of the week has been yesterday’s official release of the vision paper, which focuses on the health of Scotland’s photonics sector and its contribution to the regional economy. The paper cites an analysis by the U.K. Photonics Leadership Group suggesting that the Scottish photonics sector generated annual output of nearly £1 billion (US$1.3 billion), out of total U.K. photonics output of £12.9 billion (US$16.9 billion), in 2016.

That contribution, according to the “Vision for 2030” report, came via “a vibrant industrial core of 60 companies” employing more than 4,000 highly skilled staff, and exporting some 85 percent of their output. The Scottish photonics cluster also includes eight leading photonics research universities, where “around 250 academics and researchers are working in the photonics field.”

A Scotland-centric view

It is no secret that, particularly in the past half-decade, Scotland has experienced restlessness as a member country of the United Kingdom. In autumn 2014, for example, a referendum was held on whether Scotland should leave the U.K. and become an independent country; while the measure was defeated, nearly 45 percent of those who participated voted in favor of independence. More recently, during the 2016 Brexit vote, Scotland strongly favored remaining in the European Union.

Not surprisingly, therefore, the new Vision for 2030 paper focuses strongly on the Scotland photonics sector’s research ties within the European framework programs and on other international connections. And the report’s recommendations seem geared very much to the growth of Scottish photonics in its own right, with the goal of tripling the country’s current photonics sector by 2030.

Among the key recommendations toward that goal are four that focus on building the photonics workforce, through a 40 percent increase in engineering and physical-science undergraduates, a Women in Photonics initiative to eliminate barriers to workforce diversity, a Scottish Photonics Academic to upgrade and retrain existing workers, and a “coordinated National Photonics Initiative” for Scotland to raise public awareness of photonics as a career track. The report also recommends measures to support early-stage companies, academic-industry technology transfer and supply chains, and to further build up the photonics cluster that has emerged in Scotland.

From SOA to Photonics Scotland

The last of the report’s nine recommendations relates to the 25-year-old SOA’s transition to a new brand, for better marketing of Scotland’s photonic sector to international audiences. The organization, now rechristened Photonics Scotland, will undertake a variety of promotional activities that aim to open up new export opportunities and to attract talent and investment from abroad.

“In a political climate characterized by uncertainty,” the vision paper concludes, “it is more important than ever that Scottish Photonics establishes itself as a secure home for investment and future career opportunities.”

The complete vision paper can be downloaded at the Technology Scotland website.