APS News

Is U.S. Physics Truly International?

By William A. Blanpied

Science, we have been assured, knows no international boundaries. Can the same be said for scientists? Physicists will no doubt regard the answer as self-evident.

With the possible exception of mathematics and astronomy, we can with considerable justification claim to have been the most internationalized of all the sciences for some time. The development and elucidation of quantum mechanics in the 1920s and 1930s was the shared work of physicists from many European countries, of Americans, and of at least two Asians. CERN, created in 1952, remains a monument to the conviction of leading Europeans after World War II that the international character of physics should be made manifest by international institutions for its conduct. Since the 1950s, qualified user groups from all countries have enjoyed access to accelerator facilities in the U.S., Europe, Japan, and more recently, China. Finally, U.S. physics graduate schools have admitted qualified foreign students since World War II.

However, it remains the case that, with a few notable exceptions like CERN, virtually all institutions where physicists ply their normal crafts and establish their careers are national, rather than international. Similarly, with the exception of the European Union, the principal organizations that fund research are agencies of national governments. These circumstances have been responsible for at least two partial barriers to more complete integration of U.S. physics into international physics: (1) reluctance, until recently, to explore significant international cost-sharing arrangements for major facilities; and (2) a lack of appreciation of the value of foreign working experience in the education of young U.S. physicists.

The first has been widely discussed during the past few years. Whether or not the late, lamented Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) would have survived and prospered had it been planned as an international facility from the start is an intriguing, if ultimately unanswerable, question. Serious negotiations are currently underway that could lead to a substantial U.S. contribution to CERN's rival Large Hadron Collider (LHC). Yet the nagging thought persists that particle physics might be in a far better position today if proponents of the SSC and LHC had initiated serious negotiations a decade ago about substantial international collaboration and cost sharing.

However, a decade ago, that would have been difficult if not impossible, primarily because, while physicists are in the habit of discussing future opportunities on an international basis, national governments are not. And national governments provide the financial resources for both domestic and international scientific projects.

Until recently, no vehicle existed where program managers from agencies that fund large physics facilities in the world's principal scientific countries could meet on a regular basis to discuss promising opportunities for collaboration and cost-sharing. Thus, many worthwhile collaborations may have literally fallen through the cracks. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development created its Megascience Forum as a result of strong U.S. government leadership, intended as an attempt to remedy this deficiency by providing a venue where national program officers responsible for big science projects can sit down with their foreign counterparts to discuss the difficult issues associated with international collaboration.

The second barrier has been less widely discussed. As I was completing research for my doctoral dissertation in nuclear physics a generation ago, my advisor urged me to consider a postdoctoral position in Europe as the culmination of my apprenticeship. As a result, I enjoyed a memorable year in Italy, where I worked at what was then the new electron synchrotron facility at Frascati. Although no seminal papers resulted from that year, the experience was pivotal to my understanding of the international culture of physics. Many of my peers profited from similar experiences working abroad.

Today, relatively fewer newly minted physicists leave the U.S. for such extended working experiences. Many reasons have been cited for this. The most telling is that, given the almost impossible job market in academic physics, young people put their careers at risk by taking a year off to work in foreign laboratories, no matter how good the physics may be at such facilities. Younger physicists are unlikely to seek working experience outside the U.S. unless they are encouraged to do so by their senior mentors, many of whom have extensive collegial contacts abroad. However, those mentors are unlikely to provide the needed encouragement unless they are convinced that international experience is an essential element in the apprenticeship of a young physicist.

Perhaps the central transdisciplinary issue that concerns the APS today has to do with physics education and employment: how to transform graduate education so that new generations of physicists will be adequately prepared to contribute to a broad range of endeavors in addition to academic physics, while preserving quality and excellence. Many of the possibilities have decidedly international dimensions, consistent with what is commonly called the globalization of the economy. APS discussions about broadened graduate education in physics must be cognizant of this essential point. The Society can take the lead in assuring that international dimensions of physics education are seriously considered.

William A. Blanpied is Senior International Analyst at the National Science Foundation. A longer version of this article appeared in the March 1996 newsletter of the APS Forum on International Physics.

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin