Attracting young people to science, engineering and research remains on-going problem
The explosion of network-connected gadgets is straining today’s optic fibre networks
THERE is a shortage of scientists and engineers in many countries, but Professor Sir David Payne is confident the next generation of youth will rise up to meet that demand.
“As the world’s problems become more difficult, young idealistic people would want to roll up their sleeves and help fix them. If we embrace these youth with open arms and the right education systems, they will take up the task,” he said.
“Politicians don’t fix problems, engineers do. When issues like pollution or a shortage of food and water come to the forefront, people will look to the engineers and say ‘fix it, please.’ It is tremendously stimulating and many challenges lie ahead, so why not be in this profession?” he added.
Payne also noted that the demand for engineering courses is a cyclical one, having observed the ebb and flow of students throughout his 40-plus years as a scientist and academic.
“In the 1990s, everyone wanted to be a banker,” he told Digital News Asia (DNA) at a recent visit to Johor, where he conducted a guest lecture at the University of Southampton’s Nusajaya Iskandar campus.
Currently director of the Optoelectronics Research Centre (ORC) at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom, Payne admitted that attracting young people to science, engineering and research remains an on-going problem, with many preferring to pursue careers in more socially-related fields such as banking, services, law and medicine.
“But things have been changing rapidly over the last 10 years. In the United Kingdom, we’re seeing strong signs that more and more are interested in vocational lifestyles and making those choices,” he said.
Industry demand is certainly there with Payne reporting that photonics-manufacturing talent is scarce and that in Europe alone, the photonics industry employs over 290,000 people across over 5,000 photonic SMEs (small and medium enterprises).
In his opinion, while the current generation is starting to see the lure of a career in science, engineering and research, part of the blame for the lack of interest also lies with current practitioners and institutes of education.
“It’s partly our fault – we were arrogant to assume that everyone knew what a wonderful time we were having. We ignored the fact that communications media had changed and we weren’t selling the story right, with potentials blocked from knowing what fun it was,” he said.
“It’s a calling and the youth are beginning to recognise it again. You will spend 40 to 50 years of your life in your chosen career so you better get it right. If you love your job, and choose the right area to specialise in, you will have great fun and live a life enhanced by what you love doing,” he added.
Payne’s own enthusiasm for his chosen profession is easy enough to see, as he pointed out that in his own career he has watched the speed of how things develop, a lifetime learning experience that has been “enormously exciting.”
“Look around at most outrageous machines in a scientist’s lab today and one day it'll be size of the smartphone,” he added.
Payne said that within the field of photonics, those involved always underestimate the future and that predicting the size of the quantum jump technology could have is almost impossible.
He also shared that he likes to ask students the same question, to try and envision the shape of what the world could be 100 years into the future.
“The smart ones say that 100 years is too long and how about if they predict for 20 to 30 years ahead instead,” he noted.
“Perhaps our own minds are not big enough to accept what the world might look like 100 years from now. I remember 10 years ago I was laughing whilst listening to talks about the progression of computing power and the possibility of wearing computers and after that, the computer wearing you – but look at where we are now,” he added.
However, he said that one could safely predict that global communications will keep expanding and become instantaneous, and developing the necessary advancements in fibre optic technology which underpins the global Internet forms just one of the many world issues that Payne hopes the next generation would jump in to solve.
First generation Internet
Payne’s work in fibre fabrication in the 1970s resulted in many of the special fibres used today.
He also led the team at the University of Southampton that invented the erbium-doped fibre amplifier (EDFA), a type of optical amplifier that formed a crucial component that fuelled the rapid growth in the Internet because of its ability to transmit and amplify large amounts of data.
Payne said that there is enough fibre cable on the Earth today to encircle the globe 23,000 times, with cables being laid out at a rate of a million kilometres a year.
But the explosion of smartphones, tablets and other network-connected gadgets is putting a lot of strain on the optic fibre networks once touted to be able to handle the load – the reality is, the capacity of the world’s networking infrastructure is finite.
“But we’re running out of capacity and your ISP (Internet service provider) is already grooming your traffic to cater to the huge fluxes in demand. The fact of the matter is, we’re still on first generation technology when we talk about the infrastructure the Internet runs on,” said Payne.
Researchers around the world are already looking into solutions to the impeding data crunch on networks, with Payne pointing out that one area of focus for next generation networks is on trying to find ways of getting more bandwidth in the fibre rather than put more fibre in.
“Bandwidth is like healthcare, you can never have enough. And with all technology you typically have to wait to get into a crisis before you say ‘okay, let’s have a look at this again’,” he said.
Payne is also currently involved in the Photonics Hyperhighway project, which seeks to develop disruptive component technologies and network concepts to enhance the communications infrastructure, avert bandwidth gridlock and reduce energy consumption.
The project combines the expertise of the University of Southampton’s Optoelectronics Research Centre and the High Performance Network Group of the University of Essex, along with industry project partners.
“We haven't even begun to think about satisfying the requirements of the future yet and that’s what’s exciting right now. The mission is to try often and fail quickly as PowerPoint slides do not invent anything – research and action do,” he said.
The way forward: Global universities?
Pressing real world problems, coupled with the need for increasing the number of relevant talent working on solving them, forms Payne’s own view that more must be done to enable scientific collaboration across not just disciplines, but countries as well.
He points to a project that he is currently working on, which involves the establishment of a Specialty Fibre Optics Fabrication Facility with Nanyang Technological University in Singapore as one example.
“There is huge advantage in combining difference cultures and it really does accelerate innovation which is surprising,” he said.
Payne advocates a reversal of the traditional flows of academic and research talent, where emerging countries typically send their students to advanced countries to learn.
An advantage that established markets bring, according to him, is just “better paperwork,” a product of having done it for longer and having sorted out processes regarding the progression of students, intellectual property management and transfers.
While there is a need for such processes, especially for universities where a certain level of governance is required, such knowledge can be shared.
“It’s time to stop thinking in the old ways and move into a time of equal partnership. Countries like Malaysia, it’s going places and we can learn from that. Processes can be shared but not the essence and creativity in approaching problems.
“I see a high level of dynamism in our overseas campuses, and an openness which is an important keystone,” he said.
There are plans to develop the capabilities of the University of Southampton’s Johor campus, in line with such a mission is increasing international research collaboration, which ties in with what brought Payne to Malaysian soil most recently. He was onsite to deliver a special lecture entitled ‘50 Years of Photonics at the University of Southampton’.
At the end of his lecture, during the question and answer segment, he was asked by a student in the audience a very pressing question: “Will we ever get lightsabres like the ones in Star Wars?”
To which Payne replied with a chuckle: “Well, the thing about those lightsabres in the movies is that they stop! That’s the first wrong assumption because light doesn’t just stop. A laser beam, just like any kind of light, never just ‘stops’ unless something in its way absorbs or reflects the energy.”
Alas, one science-fiction dream was shattered that day, but perhaps the next (or next, next) generation of scientists may yet find a way to make it possible.
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