APS News

APS Views

The Not-So-Silent Physicists

By Robert Park, APS Director of Public Information

A story in this issue of APS News discusses the statement on "Conservation of Helium" adopted by the APS Council at its meeting on November 19, 1995. It was a bold action, calling for conservation and enhancement of the nation's helium reserves at a time when pending legislation calls for abolishing the reserve. Faced with the prospect of severe cuts in science spending over the next seven years, most scientific groups have been reluctant to speak out on issues that might offend powerful members of Congress. But silence carries its own risk.

Most political leaders share in the general scientific illiteracy of the public. Their decisions on scientific and technical issues, therefore, should be informed by the views of the scientists. Alas, the scientific community has been notoriously timid about letting its views be known on controversial issues. This is particularly true in the case of what might be termed "politically motivated science projects," that is, projects that are funded primarily because they address particular political objectives, rather than because of their promise in advancing scientific understanding. The prevailing view seems to be that nothing is to be gained, and much might be lost, by speaking out on the scientific merits of such projects.

The "nothing-to-be-gained" argument contends that funds taken from these politically motivated projects will not go to more worthy science, but will be lost to science altogether. It's a seriously flawed argument. Funding is limited. In opposing politically motivated projects, scientists aren't looking for a transfusion, they're trying to stop the bleeding. The "much-might-be-lost" argument holds that opposition to politically popular programs risks alienating powerful members of Congress who may otherwise be friends of science. But taking a position based on the temporary occupants of political office is short sighted and foolish. Nevertheless, these arguments have intimidated much of the scientific community.

Not so the physicists. In 1991, ignoring veiled threats of retaliation, the Council adopted a position on the manned space station stating that, "Scientific justification is lacking for a manned space station in Earth orbit." The statements of the Society are reviewed each year by the Panel on Public Affairs to see if they should be retained, reaffirmed or discarded. The space station statement remains the position of the Society today.

Not all statements of the Council are politically sensitive of course, but they are generally controversial, otherwise there would be little point in issuing them. The Council has spoken out on scientific integrity, power line fields and public health, employment opportunities for physicists, the imprisonment of Chinese physicists, creationism, government censorship, billboards in space and a host of other issues of concern to physicists and to society. The Council takes its responsibility seriously, and the most controversial statements are frequently returned to committee for further study the first time they come up. To even be considered by Council, a statement must either deal with an issue of special importance to the physics community, such as freedom of scientific communication, or with an issue of importance to society about which physicists have special knowledge, such as nuclear energy.

But does issuing a statement do any good? It may. Often a statement coming from a respected scientific organization such as the APS is news in itself. The APS statement on power line fields and public health, for example, was covered by the New York Times. The story was reprinted in newspapers all across the country. Eventually it was picked up by dozens of trade journals and newsletters. It was the subject of talk-show debates and numerous media interviews. For weeks, the Washington Office of the APS was hard pressed to supply the huge demand for copies of the statement.

Did it change anything? Perhaps. It was the first time a major scientific society had weighed in on the issue, and it seems to have put the ill-informed fear mongers on the defensive for the first time. Interestingly, physicists were concerned that perhaps it would be more appropriate for the biological community to comment. But when biological societies were asked if they planned to issue similar statements, they responded that they couldn't because they didn't understand the physics.

Even when the statement itself is not news, it allows the APS President to speak with the full weight of the Society behind him. APS Presidents are frequently asked to testify before Congress, for example. It also provides clear guidance to the Washington Office in responding to the frequently asked question: "What do the physicists think about this?"

by Robert Park, APS Director of Public Information

A story in this issue of APS News discusses the statement on "Conservation of Helium" adopted by the APS Council at its meeting on November 19, 1995. It was a bold action, calling for conservation and enhancement of the nation's helium reserves at a time when pending legislation calls for abolishing the reserve. Faced with the prospect of severe cuts in science spending over the next seven years, most scientific groups have been reluctant to speak out on issues that might offend powerful members of Congress. But silence carries its own risk.

Most political leaders share in the general scientific illiteracy of the public. Their decisions on scientific and technical issues, therefore, should be informed by the views of the scientists. Alas, the scientific community has been notoriously timid about letting its views be known on controversial issues. This is particularly true in the case of what might be termed "politically motivated science projects," that is, projects that are funded primarily because they address particular political objectives, rather than because of their promise in advancing scientific understanding. The prevailing view seems to be that nothing is to be gained, and much might be lost, by speaking out on the scientific merits of such projects.

The "nothing-to-be-gained" argument contends that funds taken from these politically motivated projects will not go to more worthy science, but will be lost to science altogether. It's a seriously flawed argument. Funding is limited. In opposing politically motivated projects, scientists aren't looking for a transfusion, they're trying to stop the bleeding. The "much-might-be-lost" argument holds that opposition to politically popular programs risks alienating powerful members of Congress who may otherwise be friends of science. But taking a position based on the temporary occupants of political office is short sighted and foolish. Nevertheless, these arguments have intimidated much of the scientific community.

Not so the physicists. In 1991, ignoring veiled threats of retaliation, the Council adopted a position on the manned space station stating that, "Scientific justification is lacking for a manned space station in Earth orbit." The statements of the Society are reviewed each year by the Panel on Public Affairs to see if they should be retained, reaffirmed or discarded. The space station statement remains the position of the Society today.

Not all statements of the Council are politically sensitive of course, but they are generally controversial, otherwise there would be little point in issuing them. The Council has spoken out on scientific integrity, power line fields and public health, employment opportunities for physicists, the imprisonment of Chinese physicists, creationism, government censorship, billboards in space and a host of other issues of concern to physicists and to society. The Council takes its responsibility seriously, and the most controversial statements are frequently returned to committee for further study the first time they come up. To even be considered by Council, a statement must either deal with an issue of special importance to the physics community, such as freedom of scientific communication, or with an issue of importance to society about which physicists have special knowledge, such as nuclear energy.

But does issuing a statement do any good? It may. Often a statement coming from a respected scientific organization such as the APS is news in itself. The APS statement on power line fields and public health, for example, was covered by the New York Times. The story was reprinted in newspapers all across the country. Eventually it was picked up by dozens of trade journals and newsletters. It was the subject of talk-show debates and numerous media interviews. For weeks, the Washington Office of the APS was hard pressed to supply the huge demand for copies of the statement.

Did it change anything? Perhaps. It was the first time a major scientific society had weighed in on the issue, and it seems to have put the ill-informed fear mongers on the defensive for the first time. Interestingly, physicists were concerned that perhaps it would be more appropriate for the biological community to comment. But when biological societies were asked if they planned to issue similar statements, they responded that they couldn't because they didn't understand the physics.

Even when the statement itself is not news, it allows the APS President to speak with the full weight of the Society behind him. APS Presidents are frequently asked to testify before Congress, for example. It also provides clear guidance to the Washington Office in responding to the frequently asked question: "What do the physicists think about this?"

by Robert Park, APS Director of Public Information

A story in this issue of APS News discusses the statement on "Conservation of Helium" adopted by the APS Council at its meeting on November 19, 1995. It was a bold action, calling for conservation and enhancement of the nation's helium reserves at a time when pending legislation calls for abolishing the reserve. Faced with the prospect of severe cuts in science spending over the next seven years, most scientific groups have been reluctant to speak out on issues that might offend powerful members of Congress. But silence carries its own risk.

Most political leaders share in the general scientific illiteracy of the public. Their decisions on scientific and technical issues, therefore, should be informed by the views of the scientists. Alas, the scientific community has been notoriously timid about letting its views be known on controversial issues. This is particularly true in the case of what might be termed "politically motivated science projects," that is, projects that are funded primarily because they address particular political objectives, rather than because of their promise in advancing scientific understanding. The prevailing view seems to be that nothing is to be gained, and much might be lost, by speaking out on the scientific merits of such projects.

The "nothing-to-be-gained" argument contends that funds taken from these politically motivated projects will not go to more worthy science, but will be lost to science altogether. It's a seriously flawed argument. Funding is limited. In opposing politically motivated projects, scientists aren't looking for a transfusion, they're trying to stop the bleeding. The "much-might-be-lost" argument holds that opposition to politically popular programs risks alienating powerful members of Congress who may otherwise be friends of science. But taking a position based on the temporary occupants of political office is short sighted and foolish. Nevertheless, these arguments have intimidated much of the scientific community.

Not so the physicists. In 1991, ignoring veiled threats of retaliation, the Council adopted a position on the manned space station stating that, "Scientific justification is lacking for a manned space station in Earth orbit." The statements of the Society are reviewed each year by the Panel on Public Affairs to see if they should be retained, reaffirmed or discarded. The space station statement remains the position of the Society today.

Not all statements of the Council are politically sensitive of course, but they are generally controversial, otherwise there would be little point in issuing them. The Council has spoken out on scientific integrity, power line fields and public health, employment opportunities for physicists, the imprisonment of Chinese physicists, creationism, government censorship, billboards in space and a host of other issues of concern to physicists and to society. The Council takes its responsibility seriously, and the most controversial statements are frequently returned to committee for further study the first time they come up. To even be considered by Council, a statement must either deal with an issue of special importance to the physics community, such as freedom of scientific communication, or with an issue of importance to society about which physicists have special knowledge, such as nuclear energy.

But does issuing a statement do any good? It may. Often a statement coming from a respected scientific organization such as the APS is news in itself. The APS statement on power line fields and public health, for example, was covered by the New York Times. The story was reprinted in newspapers all across the country. Eventually it was picked up by dozens of trade journals and newsletters. It was the subject of talk-show debates and numerous media interviews. For weeks, the Washington Office of the APS was hard pressed to supply the huge demand for copies of the statement.

Did it change anything? Perhaps. It was the first time a major scientific society had weighed in on the issue, and it seems to have put the ill-informed fear mongers on the defensive for the first time. Interestingly, physicists were concerned that perhaps it would be more appropriate for the biological community to comment. But when biological societies were asked if they planned to issue similar statements, they responded that they couldn't because they didn't understand the physics.

Even when the statement itself is not news, it allows the APS President to speak with the full weight of the Society behind him. APS Presidents are frequently asked to testify before Congress, for example. It also provides clear guidance to the Washington Office in responding to the frequently asked question: "What do the physicists think about this?"

by Robert Park, APS Director of Public Information

A story in this issue of APS News discusses the statement on "Conservation of Helium" adopted by the APS Council at its meeting on November 19, 1995. It was a bold action, calling for conservation and enhancement of the nation's helium reserves at a time when pending legislation calls for abolishing the reserve. Faced with the prospect of severe cuts in science spending over the next seven years, most scientific groups have been reluctant to speak out on issues that might offend powerful members of Congress. But silence carries its own risk.

Most political leaders share in the general scientific illiteracy of the public. Their decisions on scientific and technical issues, therefore, should be informed by the views of the scientists. Alas, the scientific community has been notoriously timid about letting its views be known on controversial issues. This is particularly true in the case of what might be termed "politically motivated science projects," that is, projects that are funded primarily because they address particular political objectives, rather than because of their promise in advancing scientific understanding. The prevailing view seems to be that nothing is to be gained, and much might be lost, by speaking out on the scientific merits of such projects.

The "nothing-to-be-gained" argument contends that funds taken from these politically motivated projects will not go to more worthy science, but will be lost to science altogether. It's a seriously flawed argument. Funding is limited. In opposing politically motivated projects, scientists aren't looking for a transfusion, they're trying to stop the bleeding. The "much-might-be-lost" argument holds that opposition to politically popular programs risks alienating powerful members of Congress who may otherwise be friends of science. But taking a position based on the temporary occupants of political office is short sighted and foolish. Nevertheless, these arguments have intimidated much of the scientific community.

Not so the physicists. In 1991, ignoring veiled threats of retaliation, the Council adopted a position on the manned space station stating that, "Scientific justification is lacking for a manned space station in Earth orbit." The statements of the Society are reviewed each year by the Panel on Public Affairs to see if they should be retained, reaffirmed or discarded. The space station statement remains the position of the Society today.

Not all statements of the Council are politically sensitive of course, but they are generally controversial, otherwise there would be little point in issuing them. The Council has spoken out on scientific integrity, power line fields and public health, employment opportunities for physicists, the imprisonment of Chinese physicists, creationism, government censorship, billboards in space and a host of other issues of concern to physicists and to society. The Council takes its responsibility seriously, and the most controversial statements are frequently returned to committee for further study the first time they come up. To even be considered by Council, a statement must either deal with an issue of special importance to the physics community, such as freedom of scientific communication, or with an issue of importance to society about which physicists have special knowledge, such as nuclear energy.

But does issuing a statement do any good? It may. Often a statement coming from a respected scientific organization such as the APS is news in itself. The APS statement on power line fields and public health, for example, was covered by the New York Times. The story was reprinted in newspapers all across the country. Eventually it was picked up by dozens of trade journals and newsletters. It was the subject of talk-show debates and numerous media interviews. For weeks, the Washington Office of the APS was hard pressed to supply the huge demand for copies of the statement.

Did it change anything? Perhaps. It was the first time a major scientific society had weighed in on the issue, and it seems to have put the ill-informed fear mongers on the defensive for the first time. Interestingly, physicists were concerned that perhaps it would be more appropriate for the biological community to comment. But when biological societies were asked if they planned to issue similar statements, they responded that they couldn't because they didn't understand the physics.

Even when the statement itself is not news, it allows the APS President to speak with the full weight of the Society behind him. APS Presidents are frequently asked to testify before Congress, for example. It also provides clear guidance to the Washington Office in responding to the frequently asked question: "What do the physicists think about this?"

by Robert Park, APS Director of Public Information

A story in this issue of APS News discusses the statement on "Conservation of Helium" adopted by the APS Council at its meeting on November 19, 1995. It was a bold action, calling for conservation and enhancement of the nation's helium reserves at a time when pending legislation calls for abolishing the reserve. Faced with the prospect of severe cuts in science spending over the next seven years, most scientific groups have been reluctant to speak out on issues that might offend powerful members of Congress. But silence carries its own risk.

Most political leaders share in the general scientific illiteracy of the public. Their decisions on scientific and technical issues, therefore, should be informed by the views of the scientists. Alas, the scientific community has been notoriously timid about letting its views be known on controversial issues. This is particularly true in the case of what might be termed "politically motivated science projects," that is, projects that are funded primarily because they address particular political objectives, rather than because of their promise in advancing scientific understanding. The prevailing view seems to be that nothing is to be gained, and much might be lost, by speaking out on the scientific merits of such projects.

The "nothing-to-be-gained" argument contends that funds taken from these politically motivated projects will not go to more worthy science, but will be lost to science altogether. It's a seriously flawed argument. Funding is limited. In opposing politically motivated projects, scientists aren't looking for a transfusion, they're trying to stop the bleeding. The "much-might-be-lost" argument holds that opposition to politically popular programs risks alienating powerful members of Congress who may otherwise be friends of science. But taking a position based on the temporary occupants of political office is short sighted and foolish. Nevertheless, these arguments have intimidated much of the scientific community.

Not so the physicists. In 1991, ignoring veiled threats of retaliation, the Council adopted a position on the manned space station stating that, "Scientific justification is lacking for a manned space station in Earth orbit." The statements of the Society are reviewed each year by the Panel on Public Affairs to see if they should be retained, reaffirmed or discarded. The space station statement remains the position of the Society today.

Not all statements of the Council are politically sensitive of course, but they are generally controversial, otherwise there would be little point in issuing them. The Council has spoken out on scientific integrity, power line fields and public health, employment opportunities for physicists, the imprisonment of Chinese physicists, creationism, government censorship, billboards in space and a host of other issues of concern to physicists and to society. The Council takes its responsibility seriously, and the most controversial statements are frequently returned to committee for further study the first time they come up. To even be considered by Council, a statement must either deal with an issue of special importance to the physics community, such as freedom of scientific communication, or with an issue of importance to society about which physicists have special knowledge, such as nuclear energy.

But does issuing a statement do any good? It may. Often a statement coming from a respected scientific organization such as the APS is news in itself. The APS statement on power line fields and public health, for example, was covered by the New York Times. The story was reprinted in newspapers all across the country. Eventually it was picked up by dozens of trade journals and newsletters. It was the subject of talk-show debates and numerous media interviews. For weeks, the Washington Office of the APS was hard pressed to supply the huge demand for copies of the statement.

Did it change anything? Perhaps. It was the first time a major scientific society had weighed in on the issue, and it seems to have put the ill-informed fear mongers on the defensive for the first time. Interestingly, physicists were concerned that perhaps it would be more appropriate for the biological community to comment. But when biological societies were asked if they planned to issue similar statements, they responded that they couldn't because they didn't understand the physics.

Even when the statement itself is not news, it allows the APS President to speak with the full weight of the Society behind him. APS Presidents are frequently asked to testify before Congress, for example. It also provides clear guidance to the Washington Office in responding to the frequently asked question: "What do the physicists think about this?"

by Robert Park, APS Director of Public Information

A story in this issue of APS News discusses the statement on "Conservation of Helium" adopted by the APS Council at its meeting on November 19, 1995. It was a bold action, calling for conservation and enhancement of the nation's helium reserves at a time when pending legislation calls for abolishing the reserve. Faced with the prospect of severe cuts in science spending over the next seven years, most scientific groups have been reluctant to speak out on issues that might offend powerful members of Congress. But silence carries its own risk.

Most political leaders share in the general scientific illiteracy of the public. Their decisions on scientific and technical issues, therefore, should be informed by the views of the scientists. Alas, the scientific community has been notoriously timid about letting its views be known on controversial issues. This is particularly true in the case of what might be termed "politically motivated science projects," that is, projects that are funded primarily because they address particular political objectives, rather than because of their promise in advancing scientific understanding. The prevailing view seems to be that nothing is to be gained, and much might be lost, by speaking out on the scientific merits of such projects.

The "nothing-to-be-gained" argument contends that funds taken from these politically motivated projects will not go to more worthy science, but will be lost to science altogether. It's a seriously flawed argument. Funding is limited. In opposing politically motivated projects, scientists aren't looking for a transfusion, they're trying to stop the bleeding. The "much-might-be-lost" argument holds that opposition to politically popular programs risks alienating powerful members of Congress who may otherwise be friends of science. But taking a position based on the temporary occupants of political office is short sighted and foolish. Nevertheless, these arguments have intimidated much of the scientific community.

Not so the physicists. In 1991, ignoring veiled threats of retaliation, the Council adopted a position on the manned space station stating that, "Scientific justification is lacking for a manned space station in Earth orbit." The statements of the Society are reviewed each year by the Panel on Public Affairs to see if they should be retained, reaffirmed or discarded. The space station statement remains the position of the Society today.

Not all statements of the Council are politically sensitive of course, but they are generally controversial, otherwise there would be little point in issuing them. The Council has spoken out on scientific integrity, power line fields and public health, employment opportunities for physicists, the imprisonment of Chinese physicists, creationism, government censorship, billboards in space and a host of other issues of concern to physicists and to society. The Council takes its responsibility seriously, and the most controversial statements are frequently returned to committee for further study the first time they come up. To even be considered by Council, a statement must either deal with an issue of special importance to the physics community, such as freedom of scientific communication, or with an issue of importance to society about which physicists have special knowledge, such as nuclear energy.

But does issuing a statement do any good? It may. Often a statement coming from a respected scientific organization such as the APS is news in itself. The APS statement on power line fields and public health, for example, was covered by the New York Times. The story was reprinted in newspapers all across the country. Eventually it was picked up by dozens of trade journals and newsletters. It was the subject of talk-show debates and numerous media interviews. For weeks, the Washington Office of the APS was hard pressed to supply the huge demand for copies of the statement.

Did it change anything? Perhaps. It was the first time a major scientific society had weighed in on the issue, and it seems to have put the ill-informed fear mongers on the defensive for the first time. Interestingly, physicists were concerned that perhaps it would be more appropriate for the biological community to comment. But when biological societies were asked if they planned to issue similar statements, they responded that they couldn't because they didn't understand the physics.

Even when the statement itself is not news, it allows the APS President to speak with the full weight of the Society behind him. APS Presidents are frequently asked to testify before Congress, for example. It also provides clear guidance to the Washington Office in responding to the frequently asked question: "What do the physicists think about this?"


©1995 - 2016, AMERICAN PHYSICAL SOCIETY
APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: Barrett H. Ripin