April Factoid Contained Negative Message for Non-U.S. Physicists
In reference to the factoid in the April 1995 issue of APS NEWS, I must say that I am fed up with this frequently used method of data presentation in your publications and your job workshops. I do not know what you are trying to achieve by classifying the physicists in this country as either foreigners or citizens. (By the way what the heck does this term "foreign citizen'' mean? An American citizen who looks like a foreigner, perhaps?). But I do know that this approach of looking at the situation is airing bigotry, doubts and animosity among physicists looking for jobs during this difficult time.
I do not believe that the negative aspects of this kind of data presentations are intended. However, this is being done in abundance in the APS publications and in the job search workshops organized by APS. It's not as much that it has offended me personally, but I am concerned about the destructive hidden message, how implicit and unintentional that may be, during this difficult time.
The chances that people would assume that the foreigner Ph.D.'s stay are larger than assuming they leave. So, my suggestion is either to stop this practice or --if you do continue--to please give us the full story. For example, show us a plot depicting the research accomplishments of "foreign physicists'' in the U.S. Believe me, blaming everything on the immigrants is not going the serve any research interest in this country.
Ithaca, New York
The Editor Responds:
It is regretable that the graph of Ph.D. production versus year in the April issue may have offended some readers. This plot accompanies an item in the "In Brief" column to its right that described demography of new Ph.Ds. It was intended to convey factual information only, and certainly not to aid or abet any xenophobia.
What the graph depicts is simply that the growth of new Ph.D. degrees issued in the U.S. comes mostly from non-U.S. students on temporary visas. It does not really address the issues of how many of these students remain in the U.S., how many return to their countries of origin, whether the increasing production of Ph.D.s in physics regardless of country of origin is desirable or not, etc. The notion of linking a person's country of origin with the current job crisis in physics is totally inappropriate. Professional qualifications should be the only criteria for consideration for jobs.
Why Not a Free Enterprise Mechanism To Support Research?
According to his letter in the April issue of APS NEWS, Rustom Roy believes that the last 50 years--a Golden Age of Science--is a square wave, a blip. I believe that it could be a step function, if: Society's investment pays off to society with a good rate of return, perhaps 28 percent, but we do not know.
A company's investment in research (as distinguished from development) is a poor investment for the company, since most research does not pay off for the company, but that which does, pays off so well that the net return to society is quite positive.
If this is true, then there should exist a free enterprise mechanism to support research to the extent that it produces value. Today's financial climate does not support this, or even regard science as a cultural good, but that does not demonstrate that the above is wrong, but rather that we need to create a different financial climate where intellectual property is not regarded as a free good. The 'we' in the last sentence is us. We cannot depend on outside help though it surely would be appreciated.
Graduate "Birth Control" Alone Won't Solve the Job Problem
An oversupply of Ph.D. physicists and continued declining job opportunities have led about a dozen of the nation's top physics departments to institute graduate student "birth control," according to an issue of Newsweek last year (December 5, 1994). However, this voluntary birth control is not sufficient to avert a typical situation: for one vacancy at Haverford College there were more than 800 applications.
It will be another four or five years before this birth control will yield meaningful results, and it will not be effective if our colleges and universities continue their undergraduate physics programs as they have done for many decades: teaching traditional courses in classical and quantum mechanics, modern physics, electromagnetism, and relativity to prepare students for graduate work in physics. And practicing "birth control" of physics majors may lead to an ever-declining scientifically literate citizenry in the U.S.
Wisdom dictates that while we pursue downsizing of Ph.D. production in physics, we must begin to develop innovative interdisciplinary and integrated physics programs at the undergraduate level which will provide a wide range of additional skills to meet the growing needs of the small industry sector and other professions. The fundamental question is, is a physics Ph.D. required to pursue alternative careers? Should we not be preparing undergraduates more broadly so that they can make informed career choices in non-traditional fields, rather than pursuing graduate studies?
What can and should be done about the shrinking job market for physicists? Three are no simple solutions. Retraining of presently available physicists for alternative career options must be the top priority, and our professional society must exert its influence in political circles for that to happen. The APS Council is urging faculty members to reassess their programs to adapt to changing economic and scientific policies of this nation. But the larger question we must all confront is whether to continue "business as usual", or follow the lead of those dozen or so physics departments that have instituted academic "birth control."
The need for curricular reform and integration of physics with other disciplines is far more urgent than we may want to admit. Undoubtedly the change will be painful, but so much is at stake that the pain will reap great rewards. Undergraduate enrollment in physics has been declining for several years, and given the worsening job prospects for traditional physics majors, we will see even fewer students choosing that path. A program such as physics and business, for example, has tremendous promise because it provides both scientific understanding and essential business skills to solve real-life problems.
Can physics be integrated with other disciplines? The answer is definitely yes. It all depends on how far we are willing to stretch our imaginations: physics with computer science, business, accounting, industrial manufacturing, finance, energy and environment, corporate law, management, science and public policy. The choices are limitless if we are willing to give up just a little in physics and substitute courses from other areas to prepare students for a broad range of careers in the real world of business, industry, finance, law, and management, all of which require scientific and technical skills.
Such integrated programs will accomplish several objectives: (1) they will increase the employability of physics majors who are not intending to go on to graduate school; (2) they will increase the attractiveness of physics undergraduate programs just at the time when women and minorities are continuing in the pipeline; (3) they will make physics majors more competitive for admission to professional schools and programs; (4) they will prepare students for the workplace without compromising their traditional career opportunities; and (5) they will cultivate collaboration between departments long considered to have no overlapping curricula, and will enhance links with business and industry.
The "birth" of integrated and interdisciplinary undergraduate and graduate physics programs will be a win-win situation for students, who will be well-prepared for alternative careers; for academia, in terms of growing enrollment in physics; for business and industry, with respect to a well-trained work force; and for the nation as a whole, for a more productive and responsible citizenry.
Vijendra K. Agarwal
Moorhead State University
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