The role of photonics in tackling future public health and economic challenges

Professor Sir David Payne, Principal Investigator of The Future Photonics Hub and Director of the Optoelectronics Research Centre (ORC), shares his thoughts on the direction of the UK’s research agenda in the wake of COVID-19, and the role photonics can play in tackling the public health and economic challenges that lie ahead. 

Post-budget, and post-COVID, how is government’s research agenda likely to change?  

The pandemic will have made many countries much more aware of how vulnerable their supply chains are; in the UK this has been brought into sharp relief with the problems sourcing personal protective equipment, for example. So the government will be focused on making us more resilient, not just in the biomedical area, but in all the other areas of the supply chain in which we have been found wanting during the pandemic. Because of Brexit there was already a greater interest in boosting our national capability and being less dependent on other countries, and this will heighten it further. I think the government will also focus on rebuilding the economy and in particular manufacturing.  

How might research funding areas change as a result?  

In my opinion we will see funding moving into research that supports industry, and of course we’ll probably see a greater emphasis on bioscience to make us more resilient.  

One might therefore also predict that there will be less focus on fundamental research where practical applications have not yet been found, but rather on R&D of nearer-term interest to industry. There may also be less investment in ‘big science’ such as the particle physics research at CERN, as governments that are looking to save money might question the justification for funding such projects.  

Pre-COVID, we had already seen plans in the budget for massive increases in research expenditure. But I don’t think this will be in the form of handouts; the government wants to force industry to make a contribution as well, because classically industry in the UK has not invested at the level of their competitor companies in other countries.  

How is the UK research community as a whole likely to adapt? 

We need to refocus on working with industry. We’re the ones with the imagination to know what products our research might produce in 10 years’ time, so there’s an evangelical role to play. That’s quite difficult – it means engaging with busy people who are primarily focused on what their figures will look like in six months’ time.  

So we’ve got to work out better ways of selling what we do, and build the right consortia. Government needs to play a key role in this, because industry is not going to fund research where the final product is several years away. But having industry on side and saying “wow, in five or 10 years’ time I will be able to sell billions of these” will get the attention of funders.  

How can academia collaborate more effectively with industry?  

I’ve been involved in many start-ups, was chairman of ORC spin-out company SPI Lasers and have worked in industry, so I have long understood the difference between the research community and industry. It’s a cultural gap (and one that I think should be celebrated), but it can be hugely frustrating for both sides. As academic researchers we use a lot of intuition and make decisions as we go, but we don’t always document them, because it’s instinctive, it’s in our DNA. When we’re in the lab and we see something interesting, we follow it even if it’s not what the sponsor company has asked us to investigate. So how do we manage that?  

The answer lies in the way we report to industry. Whereas a researcher will just make a decision and move on, industry will want to know why at that particular point you decided to go in one direction rather than another. We have to work in the way they expect and appreciate that they will want to focus not just on the end point, but on the process. In turn, industry needs to be more open to the opportunities that arise on the way.  

In my experience companies often don’t want to be reliant on university research groups, and I completely understand that – it’s not part of our strategy either. But what we are able to do is help them make the right decisions. They often don’t appreciate what the future looks like and the potential of photonics technologies. So we’re working hard on a better engagement strategy to let them know what universities can do for them.  

How does photonics fit into the wider research agenda?  

For the most part, photonics is a platform technology; it is not the end market, but it is a key part of the supply chain. For example, people might not think that the automotive industry is dependent on photonics, but in fact photonics technology is behind the latest generation of headlights, for example, and used in lidar sensors for communications in increasingly complex vehicles. So photonics is absolutely essential to that end market but frequently not recognised as such.  

The challenge is to bring photonics much more into the mainstream and work better with industry. I think the UK government will be very receptive to ideas that integrate national resources and bring appropriate skills together across the UK. So again, it’s about how we engage with government and industry so that they are aware of what we can offer.  

How could photonics research contribute to medical solutions for diseases such as COVID-19?  

In terms of controlling COVID-19 or other novel diseases, photonics has a big role to play as a huge number of diagnostic tests are optical. At Southampton, researchers such as Professor Robert Eason and Professor James Wilkinson have been working on fast, cheap tests that could be used for COVID-19 or the next pandemic, and that’s an area of work we expect to see expand. But we can’t do it by ourselves – we need to work with the bioscientists and the owners of the end product, which in this case would be the medics, the NHS and the pharmaceutical companies that produce the tests.  

Imaging is another photonics area with huge potential. If, for example, you could see the COVID-19 virus with an optical microscope, without having to use vast imaging machines, it would be a huge advantage. At Southampton, Professor Nikolay Zheludev’s work is all about whether we can use optics to get below the wavelength resolution (which limits the level of magnification possible in optical microscopes), which is an enormous question. For around 100 years it has been thought to be impossible, but Nikolay has come up with some ideas that suggest otherwise, and that’s really something worth working for. That’s one of the strengths of our work in the Zepler Institute and the ORC – we focus on problems for which we know the world needs solutions, even though they are very high risk. 

Are there other areas where photonics could provide solutions to problems associated with the pandemic?  

Social distancing throws up huge challenges for many industries – for example, how will airlines survive if they can only accommodate a fraction of the passenger numbers? The current method of detecting people’s temperatures at a distance is optical, and developments in photonics could provide better, more reliable techniques to sense whether someone is likely to have COVID-19 to reduce the risk of transmission among travellers.  

Another relevant area of technology where photonics plays an integral role is autonomous transport; drones, for example, rely on optical sensors to communicate and navigate their environment safely. Eventually, deliveries could be made autonomously to reduce contact between people – something that’s already under development.  

The pandemic could affect international relations, and we’re already seeing China flex its muscles as it comes out of COVID-19, with tensions growing in the South China Sea. So I think sensors, many of which are optical, will be another area of interest for use in defence systems. The more you know about your environment, the safer you can feel about threats, whether they are natural or defence-related threats.  

How is The Future Photonics Hub helping to maximise the potential of photonics technology?  

I would argue that in the UK we don’t have a very good track record when it comes to the translational technology readiness level scale; things tend to fall into the ‘valley of death’ – the gap between great research and its translation into great products. This results in the technology being taken up by other countries, often the US, Germany, China and Japan, and UK consumers buying the products from our competitors overseas. I can give numerous examples of work in my own area where the supplier of a product that is based on Southampton research is not a UK company.  

The Hub’s purpose is to bridge that gap. In the labs we can fabricate things using sophisticated instruments such as E-beams and focused ion beams, but these methods are expensive and slow, making them completely impractical for large-scale production. What the Hub does very effectively is to develop low-cost, reliable manufacturing processes to make things faster, cheaper and better. The technology can then be taken to market via new start-ups, by working with existing start-ups or by licensing to major companies.  

A future manufacturing research hub