Advancing American competitiveness by harnessing the power of light

Kodak. Xerox. Bausch & Lomb. Over the course of the 20th century, these “big three” companies have made America — and more specifically Rochester, N.Y. — the optics, photonics, imaging and display (OPID) capital of the world.

In doing so, each harnessed the power of light to improve the lives of countless people around the globe. Eastman Kodak popularized photography. Xerox invented the photocopier. Bausch & Lomb revolutionized vision care.

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Today, researchers, engineers and technicians have moved beyond cameras and copiers and are now harnessing the power of light to advance manufacturing, telecommunications, medicine, alternative energy, military surveillance, space exploration and much more.

OPID companies in New York provide more than 25,000 jobs and produce more than $5 billion of manufactured goods annually. In Rochester alone there are more than 60 OPID companies within a 20-mile radius, including world leaders in satellites and Internet fiber, as well as many small- and medium-sized companies. The number of OPID companies in the state is a direct reflection of the talent being developed at New York’s top academic institutions, including the University of Rochester and the Rochester Institute of Technology.

As we look for ways to keep America competitive in this new century, the OPID industry and the research that supports it is a vital asset that the United States must nurture and protect.

I recently had the opportunity to address the annual meeting of the Rochester Regional Photonics Cluster, and during my remarks I expressed my deep concern about federal budget cuts that handcuff scientific research. I have been a vocal critic of the sequester, a budget gimmick that has slashed research funding, prompting many scientists to leave the U.S. government due to job uncertainty and ushering in a “dark age” for science in America. It is penny wise and pound foolish to balance our budget at the expense of the researchers and entrepreneurs who are creating the industries and jobs of the future.

If we want to ensure that the next advancements in the field come from the United States and not from China or India, we need support for workforce training, technical innovation and entrepreneurship.

Our region took an important step in the right direction last year when several academic institutions and industry groups partnered on a winning $2 million federal grant application — one of only 10 in the country — that is already having an impact on OPID workforce training, technical innovation and business support in the Rochester area.

Over my career, I have worked hard to attract high-tech companies to Rochester, to support research funding for the University of Rochester’s laser lab and to assist our existing OPID companies, because I know that the future of our economy lies in advanced manufacturing and research and development in fields like OPID.

Together, we can develop these exciting and innovative technologies that will drive our local and national economy, create jobs and improve the health and safety of our citizens. Join me in making photonics not just a priority for New York, but for the nation.

Slaughter has represented New York’s 25th Congressional District since 1987. She is the ranking member on the Rules Committee.