Photonics research – operating in a ‘new normal’

In just a few months, the COVID-19 pandemic changed the world, affecting day-to-day life and disrupting economies around the globe. What impact did this have on the photonics research community, and what challenges and opportunities have we faced as we move into a ‘new normal’?

We asked three distinguished researchers and a final-year PhD student for their perspectives on the UK research landscape, the future of international collaboration, the practicalities of carrying out research in the ‘new normal’, and the challenges of PhD study.

The UK’s research agenda

Professor Sir David Payne FRRS FREng, Principal Investigator of The Future Photonics Hub and Director of the Optoelectronics Research Centre/Zepler Institute

Post-budget, and in the wake of COVID-19, how will the research agenda 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.

I think the government will also focus on rebuilding the economy and in particular manufacturing. 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 persuade 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.

That being the case, one might predict 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. Of course, fundamental research is the early stage seed corn for applied research, so it is important we get the balance right.

What changes are we likely to see in research funding areas?  

In my opinion we will see funding moving into supporting and rebuilding industry, and of course we’ll probably see a greater emphasis on bioscience to make us more resilient. Photonics has a role to play here as a huge number of diagnostic tests are optical. 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.

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.

What could this mean for The Future Photonics Hub?

The Hub’s purpose is to translate the brilliant ideas that have come from the Zepler Institute and elsewhere, and make them faster, cheaper and better, by developing low-cost, totally reliable manufacturing processes. So we’re well placed to support a national agenda focused on building up our industry and manufacturing capabilities.

International collaboration

Professor Nikolay Zheludev FRS, Deputy Director of the Optoelectronics Research Centre/Zepler Institute, co-Investigator of The Future Photonics Hub and co-Director of The Photonics Institute, Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore

What role will international collaborative research play in the long-term fight against

International collaborations are important at a time of extreme stress to society, not unlike during a war. For the COVID-19 pandemic, it is a war in which the entirety of humankind is on one side, and the virus on the other.  There are self-organised spontaneous collaborations between biochemists in the USA, China and Europe working on the vaccine and the disease cure. The global nature of the battle justifies open access to the results of the research, which many leading groups have adopted. The motivational premise is not to do it first, but to do it as soon as possible.

This pandemic will be a hard lesson to learn for inward-looking research actors and governments to open up, so, after the war, international collaborations in all sectors of science will expand.

What is it about photonics companies that has enabled them to continue production?

I think it has been possible because in a high-knowledge manufacturing industry such as photonics, the density of people in a factory is never higher than one per four square metres – in fact it’s often much less. That means adjusting a factory for social distancing involves minimal change. Also it is a very technically aware industry, so businesses will have had no problem making arrangements for management and sales staff to work at home.

What immediate concerns has the COVID-19 situation raised within the industry?

Many companies rely on the import and export of goods to keep their supply chain working, so that has become a concern due to the drop in global air freight capacity.
Another concern that companies have reported is the stretching of their sales pipeline. They are still closing deals and shipping products, but everything is taking longer. On top of that, the usual sources of input into their pipelines, such as trade shows, may be shut down for a long time to come. So businesses will need to adjust their sales processes and find ways to build relationships and complete deals without these face-to-face opportunities.

What about international conferences – what are the potential benefits and challenges post-COVID?

Video research conferences “in absentia” are a great weapon of war. They are much cheaper to attend and address larger research constituencies. Some of them will survive post-war. However, they do not allow for personal networking, all-important private exchanges of information and consortia building.  In the ‘new normal’ many conferences, in particular smaller meetings, will rapidly resurrect themselves.

As Co-Director of The Photonics Institute and in your role at the NTU, how have proceedings been affected?

Our collaboration with Singapore is negatively affected by the mobility restrictions, but the internet is still there, so the collaborative work, assisted by the flexibility of the Circuit Breaker regime (the Singaporean term for lockdown), remains in place.  We are all eagerly anticipating when the “new iron curtain” lifts.

What will be the longer-term effects of the shutdown on international travel?

There will be less travel after the end of the war, which is a welcome consolation prize for the environment, but not for long: the wide access to information and travel is one of the main achievements of human civilisation in the last fifty years and is unlikely to be given up easily.

Returning safely to experimental research

Professor Graham Reed FREng, Deputy Director of the Optoelectronics Research Centre, Director of Cleanroom Operations, and a Co-Investigator of The Future Photonics Hub

How did the University handle the close-down of its photonics research facilities?

A lot of detailed planning went into the close-down, undertaken by the manager of our cleanroom complex, John Ure and his team, who did a brilliant job. The labs and cleanrooms house very complex tools that you couldn’t just turn off, so we put them into what we called ‘hibernation’. For example, we have tools that contain complex lens systems that must be maintained at a certain temperature and humidity range, so we ramped back the air handling in the cleanrooms as much as we could and put in local air conditioning and humidity control where it was needed. Where necessary, we also installed cameras so that equipment displays and gauges could be monitored remotely. 

What did the return to work look like?

This also took a lot of planning, as we couldn’t just decide we were going to open up tomorrow – we had to bring all the tools back online and then calibrate and test them.

As far as social distancing goes, we have implemented a one-way route around the building, and any office work is being done from home, so the only people in the building are those working in the cleanroom or the labs.

What challenges are social distancing bringing

Social distancing is particularly difficult in a photonics lab, where you tend to work in the dark so that background light doesn’t interfere with the measurements. In normal circumstances you might have two people in those labs for safety, so if someone were to fall and hit their head, for example, there is another person there to raise the alarm. But with social distancing you can’t necessarily have two people in the lab, so we have had to set up a system so that there is frequent communication with those inside the lab.

Ironically, in terms of the virus, the cleanroom complex is probably one of the safer places to work. Everyone is required to wear personal protective equipment and the air quality is well controlled.

How are these measures affecting your research activities?

The biggest impact will be on our productivity – with fewer people able to work in the cleanrooms and labs, the amount of work we can do will be reduced, and I can see that going on for a long time. The way we organise our projects will have to change to take this into account.

How are you managing the impact of the ‘new normal’ on the research team?

Much of the work we do is very practical; there’s a lot of design and modelling work (which can be done at home), after which we make things and measure them. We’ve tried to reschedule things to enable people to do modelling and design work where possible and put off the fabrication and measurement. For some of our grants that’s possible, for others it’s not.

Fairly early on the UK research councils said they would support up to a six-month extension for PhD projects, which was a very enlightened thing to do in my view. It would be great if they could do the same thing for research contracts to help our research associates, but there’s no decision on that yet. PhD students who are self-funded can suspend their studies, but others might prefer to use the time to study their data and do some writing up.

For PhD and early career researchers coming towards the end of their contracts, it’s particularly worrying as they don’t know what will happen next and organisations are not necessarily recruiting during the crisis. Also, their career will be built on the results they get at this early stage.

Has the pandemic affected your relationship with industry partners?

We’ve continued to interact with our industry sponsors, and in the main they have been very understanding. In most cases we are continuing our regular weekly or fortnightly meetings with them using video conferencing.

Doing a PhD from home

Wanvisa Talataisong, final-year PhD student researching the fabrication of microstructured polymer optical fibres

How did the University closure affect your PhD studies?

I’m quite lucky because as a final-year student, I already have enough results to write up my thesis, so the closure doesn’t affect me too much. Also, the University has extended all the PhD deadlines by three months, which is helpful. One problem is that before the labs closed I went in to get some samples, but I have since realised that there were some that I hade forgotten, so I might need to skip some things that I wanted to add to my thesis. 

How do you think it is affecting others in a similar position to you?

Some students’ research is based on computational work and simulation, so they can continue to do that at home. But for students who really need to work in the lab to get their results it’s quite a tough time. They can do some writing up and they can try to analyse some of the work they have done so far.

It’s also tough for very early-stage PhD students. If you are in the second or third year, you will have some results you can analyse and write up during this period. But students who have only just started can’t really do anything, so that’s a big challenge. The only thing they can do is read as many papers as possible.

What support have you received from your research group and your supervisor?

We still have our weekly group meetings via video conferencing, and we have discussions via email too, so I feel I have all the support I need from my supervisory team.

What challenges have you had and how have you overcome them?

One challenge is how to keep yourself working in the home environment. Being at home makes me too relaxed! I try to stick to the same routine as before, so from Monday to Friday I get up early, have a quick breakfast and then start working, just as I would if I was still going into the University.