Josh McKenna

When the Lighting Research Center (LRC) was founded in 1988, independent lighting research was largely nonexistent and lighting education was conducted by a disparate handful of enthusiastic professors teaching undergraduates. As one lighting professor retired, that brand of education retired as well because there was no one else at that university interested in lighting. Like education, lighting research was usually led by single enthusiasts working at a university or at a national research laboratory, like I did at the National Research Council (NRC) of Canada. There were very few nonmanufacturer research laboratories devoted to lighting with more than one person; I can only think of two, the Building Research Establishment in the United Kingdom and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in the United States. Perhaps most seriously, there were no graduate education programs in lighting anywhere in the world that could produce the next generation of academics and researchers. Everyone came to lighting, as I did, from disciplines outside of lighting. Without successive generations of thought leaders, lighting could never be more than a trade.

Since the LRC and our graduate program at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., were founded, independent lighting research and education have become much more common. Today, there are more than 10 universities across the globe that grant degrees directly related to lighting. Collectively, our institutions are transforming lighting from a trade to a field.

Starting the LRC was a significant challenge. Fred Heller, former CEO of Genlyte and a member of my Director’s Council, pointed out that the lighting industry spent less than 0.5 percent of its revenue on research, in sharp contrast to other industries. Pieter von Herrmann, a former GE executive, advised me not to give up my NRC job to become director of the LRC because, as he rightly pointed out, there was no more than $250,000 in total that the industry would spend on independent lighting research each year.

What I quickly learned was that funding for lighting research and education was not going to come from the people who make good lighting, but rather from the people who need good lighting. Organizations that support our research and educational activities today include the General Services Administration, the Federal Aviation Administration, the United States Navy, the U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the National Institutes of Health, the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, Natural Resources Canada, and the Swedish Energy Agency. Today, our outside funding is slightly more than $6 million per year, 85 percent of which comes from the people who need good lighting. The lighting industry is now investing about $900,000 per year in the LRC; this is about twice the amount, in 1988 dollars, that Pieter von Herrmann said was available from the entire lighting industry for independent lighting research.

The LRC is a diverse group of men and women devoted to its mission: “To advance the effective use of light for society and the environment.” I believe that devotion is also held by lighting researchers and educators around the world. Lighting is indeed becoming a field.

Mark Rea is a professor and the director of the Lighting Research Center at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in Troy, N.Y.

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