The “average person, or average congressman” doesn’t know much about photonics, according to a coalition of industry and academic groups pushing a National Photonics Initiative.

Part of the problem could easily be the name, said Thomas Koch, dean of the University of Arizona College of Optical Sciences, who hosted a push for greater recognition at the college Wednesday, inviting Rep. Ron Barber, D-Ariz., to hear pleas for greater federal involvement in promoting the industry and funding research.

People recognize the term “optics” as dealing with lenses and light, Koch said. “Photonics,” the generation and detection of that light, puts the science of optics to work, he said.

“We use the terms interchangeably most of the time in the field,” Koch said.

Koch called photonics the “ubiquitous and invisible” industry. Its many uses are easily illustrated by the smartphone, which would not exist without it, he said.

“We are not recognized as an industry,” said Jack W. Schumann, who runs an optics firm and sits on the board of the Arizona Optics Industry Association.

Optics and photonics are critical to a number of industries but not recognized as one, he said.

It’s a big industry, said Koch, accounting for $3 trillion and 10 percent of the U.S. economy.

The U.S. share of the optics industry is eroding, he said, as Europe, China, Japan and Korea invest in research.

Koch said he realizes that the federal coffers are a tough place to look for money these days but suggested consolidating optics research with other fields in directions such as President Obama’s push for “smart manufacturing.”

Barber, after touring the nearby Steward Observatory Mirror Lab, where astronomers and optical scientists devise sophisticated measuring techniques for the world’s largest telescope mirrors, pledged to carry the message to Washington.

He told Bob Breault, who created the Arizona Optics Industry Association, that he would join with congressmen from other states to form or revise a congressional optics caucus.

He promised Jennifer Barton, interim vice president for research at UA, to champion medical imaging diagnostics at the UA.

He told Bruce Wright, who runs the UA’s Science and Technology Park, that he would seek federal designation of it as a national testing and evaluation center for optics-based solutions to solar energy and border security.

Barber also said he hoped that “cooler minds and heads” would eventually prevail in Congress where, right now, sequestration and program cuts reign.

Promotion of high-tech industry and training for the jobs it produces are critical to Southern Arizona, said Barber.

He referenced “Losing Ground,” the recent Arizona Daily Star series on poverty in Tucson, as further illustration that “so many people are not earning enough to make a living.”

Contact reporter Tom Beal at or 573-4158.