APS News

Letters

We Shouldn't Have to Choose Between Effectiveness & Honesty

I was sadly amused by a curious juxtaposition in the August/September 1996 issue of APS News. On page 4, we find the full test of the APS Council's 1991 "Guidelines for Professional Conduct," whereas on page 5 we are confronted with Stephen Schneider's self-righteous reaffirmation of what he calls a "double ethical bind."

Schneider correctly protests that Julian Simon has misquoted him by mistakenly ascribing to him the statement that "scientists should consider stretching the truth." However, when Schneider repeats the correct version of his 1989 Discover magazine interview, one sees that, apart from a crude overstatement, the misquotation factually covered Schneider's thoughts. For indeed, in that interview he says that in order to achieve broad media coverage, "we have to offer up scary scenarios. and make little mention of any doubts we might have." Are these ethics compatible with what we read on page 4?

The sentence following Schneider's idea of a double ethical bind states, "Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest." We scientists should all be obliged to Schneider for allowing us, poor things, to choose between the two - but there are not alternatives to being honest, either as scientists or respectable human beings. One final remark: Schneider let it be understood that his ethical standards are governed by his concern about the future of humanity and his desire "to see the world a better place." Many of us who have lived in at least part of the period from 1930 to 1990 in Europe (or certain other parts of the world, for that matter) are fed up with self-appointed saviors of man's future and their concomitant relative ethics.

Paul Roman
Ludenhausen, Germany

Two-Year College Faculty Members Are Forgotten by APS

There are 604 public four-year institutions of higher education in this country that enroll nearly 6 million students (including graduate students). However, 1,021 public two-year colleges (TYCs) enroll more than 5 million students, or about 48 percent of all public college students, according to 1995 data collected by the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The percentage of students enrolled in public TYCs is increasing steadily, for obvious reasons. Average tuition and fees are only about $1,114 per year, compared with $2,543 per year for public four-year institutions. Furthermore, an engineering undergraduate makes a choice between taking a physics course at a university, where a professor would lecture in front of a crowd of some 200 students, or taking the same course at a TYC where the class size is typically about 20 students.

I was therefore surprised to discover that in 1994, only 0.8 percent of APS members identified themselves as two-year college employees. Of these, most were teaching faculty. According to a 1995 survey published in The Physics Teacher (vol. 33, 1995, pages 85-90), the average size of full-time physics faculty at TYCs was 1.6; about 96 percent of physics faculty have at least a master's degree, and about 8 percent have completed their Ph.Ds.

These data raise several questions. The job market for physics Ph.Ds is shrinking, yet there exists an apparently untapped reservoir of jobs at TYCs. A conservative estimate shows that one should expect more than 100 openings annually due to the attrition of existing faculty only. One should expect that APS would make the physics community aware of these jobs and would encourage recent Ph.Ds and postdocs to apply for these positions. Such a policy would certainly be compatible with the mission of the APS to advance and diffuse the knowledge of physics. Why, then, are there only about 240 APS members among the more than 2,400 physics faculty at TYCs?

My suspicion is that many physicists who had taken these teaching positions simply did not renew their APS memberships after awhile. I can only guess what precipitated such a decision, but what first comes to mind is a feeling of utter isolation at a TYC, combined with often experienced put-downs, derogatory remarks, or outright contempt demonstrated by other segments of the APS membership. The Physics Teacher study found that 74 percent of TYC physics faculty experienced direct negative comments from colleagues at four-year colleges and universities, and 92 percent experienced indirect negative comments. In addition, 20 percent said that they felt anger caused by this lack of respect.

I think this reflects very badly on the mindset of the APS membership. It is not only evidence of a self-serving attitude, but an unwise one as well. After all, the APS is trying very hard to raise the general public awareness of the relevance of science, and to promote the standing of physics and physicists in society. And yet the APS alienates and frustrates its own members, who are at the front line of that struggle for the hearts and minds of future decision makers, to the point that such members allow their APS memberships to lapse.

The times for research funding are tough, and one would expect a stronger emphasis to be placed on educational issues. Yet it seems that the physics community is not interested in the diffusion of the knowledge of physics. Graduate students who have "unhealthy" interests in quality education rather than research are promptly sent away to a college of education and never heard from again. Physics departments are generally not interested in how future physics educators are being prepared both on undergraduate and graduate levels. They have no say and no desire to have any say in shaping the physics curricula in colleges of education, and in fact have abdicated any responsibility for education of future physics teachers. As a result, few physicists are applying for positions at TYCs; these jobs go by default to other candidates. Yet it is in a TYC setting where a majority of state legislators are exposed to science for the first and often last time, and where the battle for the public image of physics is fought.

The graveness of the situation in physics education is further compounded by regulations in several states, enacted in the interest of educational lobbies. For example, a person with a Ph.D. or M.S. in physics may not be legally qualified to teach physics in a TYC or public high school, but a person with a degree in physics education from a college of education is deemed to be qualified. This is a lunacy that should be very strongly addressed and rectified by the APS.

I would suggest the following remedial steps that I hope will be considered by the APS to improve the standing of its members in two-year institutions:

  1. Create and support a topical group for physicists in two-year colleges, or more generally, physicists in education.
  2. Generally, the APS should strengthen the emphasis placed on physics education; presently these issues are recognized as the domain of the American Association of Physics Teachers.
  3. APS should work to remove bureaucratic barriers that currently prevent easy access for physicists with M.S. or Ph.D. degrees to jobs in education at the TYC and high school levels. Current legislation favors individuals with degrees in physics education who may actually be deficient in knowledge of physics, despite possessing teacher's certificates.
  4. The distribution of funds for research vs. physics education should be reconsidered. For instance, if the recently proposed "Drell bump" for high energy physics in the amount of $350 million was instead applied to revamp physics programs specifically in two-year public institutions, that would translate into an average of $350,000 per physics program. I am willing to risk a prediction that suddenly physicists would become interested in these jobs, thus alleviating the crisis in the job market and simultaneously boosting the quality of physics programs and physics faculty at these institutions.
  5. Finally, the APS should work to remove bureaucratic barriers that currently prevent faculty at a TYC from applying for research grants from DOE, NSF, the Research Corporation, etc. After all, why should a physicist with a long research record and many publications become automatically ineligible for these grants at the moment he or she accepts a faculty position at a two-year institution? Research proposals are supposed to be evaluated on merit, and any form of "preventive censorship" should be abolished.
Mikolaj Sawicki
John A. Logan College
Carterville, Illinois

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin