Last month, SFR published a report of the top 10 companies that have Santa Fe connections and have received federal defense money. The No. 10 spot was awarded to Mesa Photonics, a small outfit on Pacheco Street that builds measurement systems for ultrafast lasers and which received $339,115 from defense agencies. But Mesa President David Bomse, while acknowledging the contracts, says he’s not a war-profiteer, and that his business “has been hurt by this war.”
SFR: Explain in laymen’s terms what exactly Mesa does.
DB: We do a couple of things. Our major business is that we build test and measurement instruments for lasers. The best way to think about it is that lasers require fine adjustment and tune-up, and it’s often difficult to measure how they are operating, so what we do is build instruments that can be used for that purpose.
What are the ultrafast lasers you work with?
It’s a very specialized type. Ultrafast lasers are lasers that emit very, very short pulses of light. They are used primarily in research in chemistry and physics. I don’t know that anyone has used one in any commercial products or any military products.
Then what did you receive military contracts for?
The contract that I assume [SFR] found was a contract from DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency], and it was joint with us and the University of New Mexico for developing new types of diode lasers. Diode lasers are the miniature low-power lasers that are used in laser pointers, laser printers and for telecommunications—you know, the main trunk lines for the internet. The light that goes through the fiber is generated through this type of laser. What the guys at UNM have done is they’ve developed an improved type of laser that has very unusual time properties. They run much faster than other types of lasers. And you probably know from everything people say about the internet that speed is everything. That’s probably the clearest connection to me. And again, these things, where they end up being used, are in commercial products. And insofar as the military wants fiber-optic communications…the military may use it, but these are not the type of things being used for the war effort. It’s a pretty far cry from mercenaries.
So, despite the wars, you would have done this contracting work anyway?
And perhaps more. We as Americans have made the decision, whether intentionally or not, have decided that much of the research done in this country is done by the military. The military funds tons of research, much of which doesn’t have obvious military applications. I really wish the system were different. I wish Americans were well-educated enough to make well-informed decisions about which types of research are funded, and we end up with the system, which is about 60 years old—more like 70 years old now. And over the last 20 years or so, the National Institute of Health has grown, and its research budget has grown. I mean, the Army funded one of the biggest breast cancer research efforts a few years ago. And the rationale is, we now have a lot of women soldiers and breast cancer is going to be a big issue for the army. Whether that’s PR or not, you can tell that how military research is being used in the country goes well beyond war efforts.
You mentioned earlier that the war efforts have actually hampered your own research endeavors. How has that happened?
There are fewer research dollars available. They’re going to tangible materials, to Blackwater, etc. You know, this is the war that, you try to fight two wars without raising taxes, you’re going to run into budgetary problems. And a lot of research money is used as discretionary spending in the military. I’m just making a hypothetical here because I don’t know exactly the decisions that are made. But if you’re in the Army and worrying about troops in Iraq, and you’ve got a pot of money for breast cancer research, and you have troops on the battlefield, what are you going to do? It’s the same with what we do.