portrait of Allister Ferguson

Allister Ferguson. [Image: University of Strathclyde]

The International Photonic Advocacy Coalition (IPAC), an initiative sponsored by The Optical Society (OSA), seeks to raise awareness of the benefits of optics and photonics science and technology, and the need to fund it adequately, among worldwide policymakers and the public. As one of its first key focus areas, IPAC chose a quintessential cross-border issue: The need to precisely track pollution, changing climate conditions and environmental quality in an era of significant worldwide challenges.

As part of that focus, IPAC has begun the process of setting up a network of Global Environmental Measurement and Monitoring (GEMM) centers. To learn more, OPN talked with OSA Fellow Allister Ferguson of the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, Scotland—where one of the first of the GEMM centers is now taking shape.

What first got you interested in working as a member of the IPAC steering committee?

For me, it started when [2009 OSA President] Thomas Baer, with whom I go back a long way, expressed the need for an international effort to raise awareness of photonics—not just as a technology, but as something that can change people’s lives and improve aspects of society. We needed a way to influence policymakers and society in general to show how photonics could be used to the benefit of society.

That seemed like a pretty interesting development. We’re so used to thinking of the technical solutions that photonics can bring, and you get very focused on discovering new things and making new devices and so on. I was quite interested in these wider, potentially beneficial impacts. So I thought that was interesting when Tom started talking about it, and I agreed to join the steering committee.

ipac logo

[Image: Courtesy of The Optical Society]

One of the big focus areas for IPAC is global environmental measurement and monitoring, or GEMM. I understand there was something of a kickoff meeting for that emphasis last September at Stanford University in California.

That’s right. This was a satellite meeting to a climate-change conference organized by the state’s governor, Jerry Brown. I couldn’t go to that meeting, but Strathclyde and the Scottish government had several representatives there, and Stanford, U.C. Berkeley and Strathclyde signed a memorandum of understanding with OSA. The notion was that we would be nodes and a starting point for an international network that looks at environmental measurement and monitoring, and how that can be used to inform issues around environment and climate change.

What has come out of that meeting for Strathclyde?

One thing is that it’s been agreed that the next workshop will be held at Strathclyde in Glasgow this September. We’re organizing that workshop now, and we hope to have a number of other countries involved, including Canada and New Zealand. Our hope is that this September would be an opportunity for other possible nodes in this network of GEMM centers to be identified.

A second thing that we’re working on at Strathclyde is a center for doctoral training. The idea there is having people working on doctorates in a range of topics—everything from photonics and optical technologies, to economics and environmental law, right through to public policy. Strathclyde has recently approved this Center for Global Environmental Measurement and Policy, which will be led by newly appointed faculty members and we will take in the first cohort of students in October.

And the third thing we’re doing is looking at a master’s program—and again, this will bring together that whole spectrum, from the people working on physical measurement right through to policymaking and everything in between. The idea is that someone who’s gone through this might come from a physics background, maybe a photonics background, but they will have been exposed not only to the technical issue of how you make these very precise measurements, but how you make the public feel comfortable about this, how you influence policymakers, how an environmental-law perspective applies and so forth. So people get a broader understanding of the issues around this, and an understanding that it’s not just a measurement issue.

arists graphic showing pollution and monitoring network

[Image: Getty Images]

Wow—you are really taking an interdisciplinary approach.

Yes, absolutely; I think that’s key to it. I think that’s the approach that you need in order to take on these big challenges. It’s not just about photonics and making the most sophisticated measurements—because that’s not going to be any good unless there are people in the field that can make these measurements, other people who can interpret them, and still others who can then take those measurements into policymaking. So it’s a whole spectrum, that’s what we’re interested in. And we’re finding that people are very open to these kinds of cross-disciplinary collaborations.

There’s also obviously the international dimension—as part of this GEMM network things are being done jointly between the different nodes of the network. So the international meetings are important, and we hope to include that international perspective in some elements of the training.

But we also realize that that each node in this network needs to organize itself in the way that’s appropriate to the local environment, to local circumstances. The environmental issues in California are very different from the environmental issues in Scotland, which are very different from the ones in New Zealand, which are very different from the ones in Canada. The local physical situation, the local industries, the local political situations are all going to differ.

Yes—I understand that in Scotland, for instance, water is a big environmental issue.

Right. Water management is important because so much of our economy depends upon water. Even if you take the whisky industry, for example, that’s physically dependent on the quality of the water and the way that we use it. We have a national system of freshwater distribution here, Scottish Water, that we’re working quite closely with on this project.

Seawater is also important in Scotland, related to our fishing industry. This is something that we’ve been comparing notes on with California, where the fishing industry is also significant. It’s interesting to make these international comparisons—places that you think have different social and economic structures are very often facing quite similar issues. That’s another reason for having an international network like IPAC.

Have there been any big challenges as you’ve tried to put this effort together?

I’d say not, actually. It’s almost like we’ve been pushing an open door. It’s been quite interesting. I have a photonics and optics background, and am relatively new to this field. But you find when you start to talk more widely, to different people from different disciplines, that there’s already an awful lot going on. And when you share information with them about the measurement science with photonics, that opens their eyes as well.

So you realize that there are these parallel activities going on, but that they haven’t really been meeting. And so I think what we’re doing is trying to pull some of these various strands together as part of this process. We recognize that optics and photonics and measurement science in general have a lot to contribute to this whole conversation that’s going on—but that it’s not the only thing. That’s the kind of nexus that we’re working in.

To learn more about IPAC, visit www.osa.org/ipac.