APS News

Take Physics Local

By P. W. "Bo" Hammer, Assistant Manager of Education, American Institute of Physics

Physicists are fiddling, but not as Einstein once did. As we glory in the centennial of the electron, our profession may be crumbling around us. Consider our operating environment: While the total number of college graduates is at an all-time high, the number of bachelors degrees in physics produced annually is at a 37-year low, approaching 4,000. [See graph and APS Views from the July 1997 issue of APS News.]

Furthermore, for every 1000 bachelors degrees awarded each year, only 3.6 are in physics, compared to an historical level of about 5 per 1000. Over half of all college graduates are women, but in physics we are hovering just below 20%. Similarly, with Blacks and Hispanics, our numbers are in the single digits and out of proportion to the total number of minorities graduating from college. A visit to physics departments is likely to reveal malaise and anxiety among students concerned about their professional future. And why not? Funding for R&D is in decline. Our own publications lament the job situation for physics graduates, and physicists entering the workforce face an unreceptive audience of employers. Taken together, these conditions indicate a profession in distress, yet what we observe are symptoms, not the disease.

After World War II, physics departments and the federal government entered into an agreement whereby physicists would perform federally funded basic research in exchange for training PhDs and providing the technological advances that strengthened the U.S. military and industry. The outcome of this bargain was a research and training enterprise that drove the emerging U.S. high-tech economy. What ails us today is that federal budget pressures, the end of the Cold War, and global competition have chipped away at the tenets of this contract. The pact between physics and society has eroded and our vision of the future is blurred as we cling to the Cold War bargain that sustained our academic and industrial research enterprise.

The bachelors degree was a necessary station on the PhD assembly line, but was never really viewed as a worthy end product, even though fewer than 8% of all physics bachelors have become PhD physicists doing research or teaching. Yet, despite their neglect by the physics community, physics bachelors and masters students have gone on to productive professional lives because of the utility of the physics degree.

Our professional base - the physics bachelors degree - is disappearing in response to a perception among students and many employers that physics is no longer a viable professional option. If this base erodes much further, the damage could take years to correct, putting the U.S. years behind its competitors in the interim.

The problem with rebuilding this base is that we cannot rely as we once did on the federal government to provide the bricks and mortar. There is intense pressure to bring government spending into balance. The structure of the federal budget and its off-limits entitlements mean that even in the rosiest of fiscal scenarios, funding for science is not going to grow much above inflation. The key to our long-term professional survival, therefore, is to re-establish physics' pact with society. We must do this by reaching out to our local communities and building symbiotic relations whereby physics and the communities we serve become mutually dependent partners. In other words, physicists and physics departments need to take physics local.

The opportunities to take physics local are particularly rich in urban and regional centers that usually have affordable higher education at public two- or four-year colleges.

Yet, many of these departments do not have PhD programs and cannot compete for federal funding against the big research universities in their states. As state budgets for higher education become tighter, pressures are building to phase out the physics major in departments which produce few undergraduate majors. With a national average of less than six majors per department, many urban and regional departments are already feeling the heat. The solution is for physics departments to take physics local, becoming such visible and valuable resources to their local communities that no sane university or state administrator would dream of even nicking them with the budget axe.

This concept is not so far-fetched. Consider the aggressive outreach and utility that engineering, business, and education schools provide to their communities. Engineering schools are particularly good models because they and physics draw from a similar pool of potential majors. Yet while physics struggles to keep its annual number of majors above 4,000, the engineers have been turning out around 100,000 graduates per year. Why such a discrepancy?

One explanation is the natural link, made in the minds of students and employers, between the value of an engineering degree and the types of jobs in the technical workplace. Engineering, business, and teaching programs provide students with a vision of their professional futures in ways that physics does not because there is no explicit physics industry. Engineering and business schools are intimately cognizant of the needs of their customers, typically local industry. When asked, companies will tell you that they need skilled workers, problem-solvers, and people with bachelors and masters degrees who can think on their feet and learn new tasks quickly.

But engineering schools don't just produce a hot employable commodity by churning students through the curriculum. Engineering schools often provide a lot more bang for students' tuition buck than physics by adding meaningful value to the degree through extracurricular benefits such as internships, co-op positions, connections to companies that have a history of hiring their graduates, and professional certification.

Furthermore, engineering and business schools aggressively track their alumni. Workforce- bound graduates from regional and urban commuter schools are especially valuable because they tend to stay local. Maintaining good alumni contact and relations is key because alumni who get jobs eventually progress into positions of influence and may be able to provide internships, jobs, contracts, and advice. These are the types of interactions which are necessary if a department is going to be an important community resource.

The physics community can rebuild its pact with society, not by mimicking engineering, but by maintaining the curricular, innovative, and complex problem solving strengths of physics. Furthermore, if physics students are our customers, then many physics departments are struggling because of poor marketing and inadequate attention to the needs of these customers. We must assess and act on the needs and goals of our students, and on how physics can be put to service for the good of the local community. Engineering and business schools thrive in this environment because of the continuous ebb and flow of people between campus and the private sector. The secret is to build symbiotic relations through human interaction and human resources. Another area where physics departments can take leadership is in the training of K-12 science teachers. Quality pre-college education is arguably the single greatest need within urban areas and one in which physics departments now play a very small role. Physics departments must become proactive in the training of teachers for the simple reason that better K-12 science education results in better prepared college students, a larger and higher quality pool of potential majors, and a population of high school and college graduates who are more at ease with science and technology and ready for work in our technical economy.

Reestablishing the pact between physics and society by taking physics local is not a blue-sky concept. There are many examples of physics departments around the country that have devised innovative approaches to the physics degree and to physics teaching, some of which are highlighted in this issue of APS News. These departments are quite varied in nature, but they all have made the operational connection between society, the communities their universities serve, and their departments' long-term survival.

Our profession is threatened, not by the priorities of Congress, the President, or an ill-informed public, but by our own complacency about our changing role in society. The federal government will continue to fund a broad-based program of basic research in physics. However, funding will decline over the next five or more years and will not sustain today's population of PhD-granting physics departments and the doctorates they produce. Yet, our departments live in communities that have real needs, representing the new universe of opportunities for physics. Just as the business, engineering, and education schools on many campuses operate symbiotically with the local environment, so can physics. The secret is to get out there and meet the managers, scientists, and engineers in the community and ask them how physics can help. Then do it.

This is a challenge to the physics community to assess itself as our profession makes this transition into the post-Cold War, globally competitive world. The APS and AIP want to help physics departments make this transition proactively and successfully so that physics' foundation in society is built to last. The AIP Education Division is collecting success stories with the goal of identifying models for change, establishing a network of community-focussed physics departments, and disseminating this information to the physics community. We welcome your stories and your comments on this challenge.

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