APS News

Bromley Emphasizes Communication, Cooperation in Science

Improving communication and cooperation at both the local and global level is the key to resolving many of the issues currently facing the APS and the physics community as a whole, according to incoming APS President D. Allan Bromley. The Sterling Professor of the Sciences and Dean of Engineering and Technology at Yale University and former science advisor to President Bush, Bromley assumed office on January 1.

A native Canadian, Bromley received his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Rochester in 1952 and remained on the Rochester faculty until 1955, when he returned to Canada and the Chalk River Laboratories. In 1960 he joined Yale University's physics department, which he chaired from 1970 to 1977. On leave from Yale from 1989 to 1993, he served as Assistant to the President for Science and Technology in the Bush Administration, the first science advisor to hold this rank.

A past president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and of the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics, Bromley is also a founding member of the APS Division of Nuclear Physics, serving as its first divisional councillor. He has also served on the APS Publications Oversight Committee, the Physics Planning Committee and the APS Committee on Education.

In addition to his activities while in the White House, Bromley has extensive experience in international science and technology, including service on a number of international commissions on science. He has published widely in nuclear physics, on accelerator-related instrumentation, and on science and technology policy, serving as a member of the High Energy Physics Advisory Panel, the National Science Board, and many other boards and committees in government and private sectors. He was awarded the U.S. National Medal of Science by then-President Ronald Reagan.

Bromley identified three key issues he considers priorities for his tenure as APS president: (1) improved communication and cooperation between scientific societies in the U.S.; (2) the advent of electronic publishing; and (3) improved communication and cooperation with the international scientific community. He will draw on his experiences as IUPAP president, and as George Bush's science advisor. The upcoming APS Centenary, scheduled for March 1999 in Atlanta, Georgia, is also a major focus. "Our centennial celebration has the potential of being a major focus for scientific activity in the U.S. and for bringing together the world physics community," he said.

Bromley also gave high praise to the current APS officers with whom he will be working, including APS Executive Officer Judy Franz and two new appointees, Treasurer Tom McIlrath and Editor-in- Chief Martin Blume, who replaced Harry Lustig and Benjamin Bederson respectively. "I consider myself extremely fortunate to have so accomplished a set of officers in place," he said. "This is a remarkably able trio, and I am very much looking forward to working with them."

Q Improving communication and cooperation with other scientific societies is one of your goals for the coming year. What can be gained by accomplishing this?

A Federal funding in support of science and technology during the next five years is going to be dwindling. Therefore, it is more important than ever for us to make a more effective case to Congress that investment in support of science and technology is truly an investment in the future of our nation. I am convinced that we can do this much more effectively if we do it on behalf of science generally, rather than as representatives of a particular field, such as physics, chemistry, biology or engineering. I would like to make sure that as many scientific societies as we can recruit come together and jointly present the case for maintaining the support of scientific research and development in this country to Congress and to the Administration. We are fortunate to have Michael Lubell as a member of our senior staff working in these areas.

Q How can the APS best respond to the clear shift from traditional paper publication to electronic publishing?

A Again, we can make major progress by joining forces and cooperating with the other societies. It is vitally important that we each not try to reinvent the wheel. The APS derives a very substantial fraction of its income from its publication activities. It is not clear yet how we can make the transition to electronic publication while retaining the kind of income that will be required to provide many of the other services that our members have come to expect. It is also not clear how we will maintain the quality and archival aspects of electronic publishing. Change is inevitable, but it is essential that we do it in an effective, coherent way, to achieve minimum upheaval and maximum benefit to the scientific community.

Q Does this emphasis on improved communication also apply to the international activities of the Society?

A Just as there is tremendous advantage in cooperation across the scientific frontier within the U.S., there are also many potential advantages to improving our communication and cooperation with the international scientific community. The logical place to start is with the other physical societies worldwide. I'm very enthusiastic about a meeting that we are planning for October 1997 that will bring a substantial fraction of the major physical societies together in Washington to discuss some of the issues we all face. These include such topics as education, support for research, electronic publishing, and general cooperation and communication, particularly as it relates to the use and availability of major facilities. Irving Lerch, our senior officer in charge of international affairs, is already doing outstanding work with the international community.

Q Physics and science in general have become very fragmented, but there now seems to be a trend towards pulling those various disciplines together, with much more emphasis on interdisciplinary research. Is this likely to continue?

A Yes. In a very large fraction of cases, the most interesting research and the important discoveries are going to come in the interfaces between the traditional disciplines. The historical traditions of academic departments and of federal agencies have made communication and cooperation more difficult than necessary across departmental boundaries. For example, try to get someone actively involved in interdisciplinary research a tenured position at a university. The general attitude encountered is that, if the individual was 'really' a physicist or chemist, he would have worked full time at it rather than fooling around with other departments. This is a totally outmoded approach, and the APS can play a leading role in changing it.

It's also true that coming out of the War years physicists played a substantial leadership role in the overall scientific community. That's no longer true. For example, on the Bush Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), we had a very wide array of disciplines, and that is as it should be. It is very important for us to be talking to the biologists, chemists, geologists, astronomers, and all the other folk who are going to be playing much more important roles in the future in leading the scientific community of this country.

Q In your candidate's statement you spoke of an erosion of the public trust in science since the Vietnam era, whereas in the decades immediately following World War II scientists were seen as saviors who helped us win the war. Is there a specific reason why the image of science seems to have suffered so badly?

A The problem is that much of our citizenry find it difficult to distinguish between science and technology. Technology acquired a bad name during the Vietnam period, and always is seen by much of the public with a mushroom cloud in the background. Sometimes science gets a bit of the backlash. Fundamentally, however, we can trace most of the difficulties back to the unwillingness of scientists to pay enough attention to the importance of explaining to the public what they were doing, how they were doing it, and what its consequences would be. After all, we work for the taxpayers and we have a responsibility to account to them in ways they can understand. Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that in poll after poll taken within the past few years, over 80 percent of the American public has responded positively to the kind of question that asks, "Would you support fundamental research even if there was no obvious utility for that research apparent?"

Q Is this lack of understanding also indicative of the poor state of science education in the U.S.?

A We are in a very paradoxical situation. Our graduate education is the best in the world, as evidenced by the large number of foreign students who come to this country for graduate education. Students vote with their feet. In 1990 the number of foreign doctorates in engineering awarded by U.S. universities was over 50 percent. In 1994, the number of doctorates in mathematics and computer science to foreign candidates was over 50 percent, and the number of foreign graduate students in agriculture is presently approaching 50 percent. However, our problem has not been too many foreign students, but too few American students.

However, at the undergraduate level, we're the only developed nation that doesn't have standards for what constitutes a college education. Thus, we have some institutions that provide education far beyond world standards in quality, and a very large number that provide an inferior education. We used to think that on the average we were competitive with the rest of the world. However, in March 1996 the National Association of Scholars looked at 50 of our leading universities and found some very sobering statistics suggesting that we can't become complacent about the quality of college education in this country.

The precollege level is enormously important for the sciences, mathematics and engineering, because people in these areas make their career decisions typically in the middle grades, and if we've lost them at that point, we've lost them permanently. This poses a particularly serious problem in the case of women and minority group members. That is why I think that the education summit in 1989 was so important in alerting the nation to the real crisis that exists in precollege education, and why the APS education programs are critically important. There is no problem facing the U.S. that is more serious than bringing our overall educational system back to excellence. Money is not the problem - we spend around $700 billion a year on education - it's how we spend it.

Q Is the influx of foreign graduate students likely to continue into the next century?

A We're going to have to recognize and cope with the fact that the number of foreign students is going to decrease substantially in the future. One reason is that their home countries are increasingly recognizing that the U.S. is benefitting from a brain drain; we are picking off some of their brightest young people, to our advantage. That's not going to be allowed to continue. These countries are realizing that they have to develop infrastructure at home that results in attractive career opportunities for these bright young people. Secondly, last summer the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service substantially tightened the restrictions on admission of foreign scholars and students, I regret to say in part because of pressure from Americans who didn't want the increased competition.

Q Is it true that it's not so much that there are no job opportunities, but there are not the same traditional opportunities available for Ph.D. physicists, and they are increasingly required to be interdisciplinary and inventive in their career choices?

A To a significant extent, the problem has been that faculty members like myself have allowed the career horizons of our students to narrow substantially, such that students have the impression that if they don't clone their professors' laboratory lifestyles and careers, they are really second-class citizens. This lack of understanding of the opportunities, challenges and rewards of career trajectories completely outside of academia is something that we must combat.

Far too many faculty members also feel that their responsibility to students ends at commencement. That is clearly unacceptable. Having a senior faculty member work to assist a student in finding an attractive position can make a difference of between five to ten years in their career pattern. We must educate our faculty about the importance of their responsibilities after graduation, as well as giving an honest evaluation of the career situation at the very beginning of their relationship with students.

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin