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New Report Focuses On U.S. Leadership In AMO Science
December 27, 2019

According to a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, the federal government should foster collaboration and decrease obstacles that can keep foreign atomic, molecular, and optical (AMO) physicists from working in the United States, if the nation is to maintain its position as leader in these fields. As AMO science increasingly overlaps with different science disciplines, federal agencies and academia should enable cross-disciplinary workforce and educational cooperation among scientists, according to Manipulating Quantum Systems: An Assessment of Atomic, Molecular, and Optical Physics in the United States.

AMO science studies atoms, molecules, and light at the quantum level. It combines curiosity-driven research with practical applications, connecting scientific discovery and rapidly evolving technological advances, innovation, and commercialization. AMO science played a pivotal role in, for example, the discovery of gravitational waves, and currently, AMO science is vital in fostering a number of emerging scientific areas, such as quantum information, novel approaches to the control and use of light, precise probes of nature’s fundamental principles, and new technologies for biology and medicine.

“The U.S. research community has enjoyed global leadership in AMO science, thanks to sustained, strong support from the federal government and the unique AMO culture that fosters collaboration and open research,” said Jun Ye, a NIST Fellow and professor of physics at the University of Colorado and co-chair of the committee that wrote the report. “Over the past decade, however, the U.S. global leadership position has begun to erode, as funding has not kept up with growth in the field, and other countries have increased investments in this field.”

International collaboration has been, and will continue to be, an essential avenue for progress in AMO science, the report says. While the committee recognized the potential security concerns in open, international collaboration, it recommended that the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and other federal agencies work with the U.S. Department of State to introduce mechanisms to remove excessive visa application delays for international students, collaborators, and speakers at conferences and workshops. OSTP should also standardize mechanisms for joint funding of cooperative projects and introduce agreements for funding agencies in different countries to accept each other’s grant administration regulations.

Components of AMO sciences overlap with other physics disciplines, such as quantum information science, high-energy physics, nuclear physics, and astrophysics, and can expand into different scientific fields. This interdisciplinary aspect of AMO physics necessitates collaboration with scientists and engineers from other disciplines. It is imperative, the committee stated, that academia encourage and enable cross-disciplinary hiring of scientists with backgrounds in fields such as computer science, mathematics, chemistry, biology, and engineering to work in AMO sciences. Likewise, federal entities such as the National Science Foundation, U.S. Department of Energy, National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the U.S. Department of Defense should foster collaboration and coordinate research activities that span across AMO sciences and other fields. The National Quantum Initiative (NQI), a program coordinated by OSTP that supports the collaboration between federal entities and the private sector and academia, will be vital to furthering investment and engagement on important AMO topics.

As with other science disciplines, AMO science continues to have difficulty attracting women and underrepresented minorities and has not kept up with demographic shifts in the U.S., the report states. The committee endorsed previous National Academies studies that aim to address this issue, with recommendations such as academia prioritizing inclusive teaching and mentorship practices.

“The U.S. is at risk of losing its global leadership in AMO science as other countries are investing heavily in this vibrant field. The U.S. can keep pace with this growth internationally through strategic investments in vital areas of AMO science, and through collaborating across both disciplinary and international lines,” said Nergis Mavalvala, Curtis and Kathleen Marble Professor of Astrophysics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and committee co-chair. “The participation of women and underrepresented minorities in AMO science is far below the demographic composition of the U.S. Not tapping this talent pool to its full potential is a continuously lost opportunity.”

The AMO science enterprise requires increased federal funding in order to see continued progress with regard to quantum sciences, astronomical research and experiments, and ultrafast X-ray light source facilities, among other areas. While strong support for individual investigators is key to maintaining the health of AMO science, it is also increasingly important to have coordinated efforts to fund mid-scale to large collaborations, the report says.

The study — carried out by the Committee on Decadal Assessment and Outlook Report on Atomic, Molecular, and Optical Science — was sponsored by the Department of Energy, National Science Foundation, and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are private, nonprofit institutions that provide independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions related to science, technology, and medicine. They operate under an 1863 congressional charter to the National Academy of Sciences, signed by President Lincoln.

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