APS News

APS Views: Now and Then: 1999



APS Purpose: "In the firm belief that an understanding of the nature of the physical universe will be a benefit to all humanity, the objective of the Society shall be the advancement and diffusion of the knowledge of physics."

Meeting Challenges of the 21st Century

by Jerome Friedman, 1999 APS President

Jerome Friedman, 1999 APS President
Jerome Friedman
1999 APS President

The APS has the responsibility of providing opportunities for the physics community to communicate scientifically, both within fields and across fields, by means of meetings and journals. This central function must be continually strengthened, but the APS must do more to ensure the health of physics at a time when science in general is facing serious challenges. This month — in fact, this entire year — is a celebration of 100 years of the APS, and 100 years of remarkable advances in physics. But we also want to use this event as an opportunity for extensive outreach to the general public, to policy makers and to students. The continued support of physics will depend on our ability to articulate to the federal government and the public at large the contributions that physics makes to society. The APS has been playing an important role in organizing and leading this effort, and the Centennial celebration is the beginning of new efforts in this direction.

Today the pursuit of science is under great budgetary pressures in a period of budget caps and major social problems. With the end of the Cold War, the social contract between science and society embodied in Vannevar Bush's ground-breaking report, Science: The Endless Frontier, has begun to erode. In the decades following the end of World War II, the support of science was regarded as a wise investment. However, in recent years there have been some in government who have questioned this premise. They do not accept the view that the pursuit of scientific knowledge has social as well as intellectual value; and they have wanted guaranteed, short-term benefits as the justification for their support of science. We must transmit the message that the support of science and technology is an investment that is critical for the future of the nation, and that an appropriate portion of the federal budget should go into both basic and applied research.

The way we live today is very much a product of the scientific discoveries of the past and the technologies developed from them. These advances have also shaped how we see our place in the universe. Science has played and is playing a vital role in improving our lives. This view is clearly expressed in Vern Ehlers' recent report, Unlocking Our Future, which updates the Bush report. This report and the Frist-Rockefeller Bill, S.2217, which seeks to increase federal funds for science by a factor of two in twelve years signify a changing climate in Washington with regard to support for scientific research. But this change is far from complete and the scientific community must work hard to bring it about and maintain it.

The nation has many diverse needs, and we, the scientific community, must ensure that the public and our policy makers are aware of the importance of research when political choices are being made. Our community should undertake a general educational role which explains the nature and value of physics. We must also make better contact with science journalists to amplify our message and enlarge our audience. In the long run science can prosper only if the public truly supports it.

The more unified the physics community is the greater its political effectiveness will be. Because of the diverse range of subfields represented within the Society, the APS works to enable the physics community to speak with one voice. The same principle applies to the scientific community in general. The APS and over 100 other scientific and technical societies are now working together as a unified advocate of better funding for basic and applied science.

The public today is largely disengaged from science. They are the product of a K-12 school system that has failed to provide scientific literacy. The young people of today are not being equipped to succeed in a technological society. Another serious issue is that a scientifically uninformed public cannot effectively participate in political decisions related to science and technology.

The APS must continue to strengthen and develop its programs to improve physics education in the elementary and secondary schools. We should extend our existing efforts by increasing our associations with science teachers, helping them devise more effective curricula. We should encourage an increase in the participation our members, providing them with the support they need to work effectively at the local level. Our community also has the responsibility to bring to the public and political leaders those scientific insights and facts that bear upon scientific issues in specific political decisions. The Society should continue to play an important role in this area.

Finally, although we are the American Physical Society, the world is getting smaller, and greater involvement in international issues is inevitable. Today we have many members outside the U.S.,and most of the manuscript submissions to our journals are from foreign authors. In the international arena the APS should pick its goals carefully, focusing on issues in which we can be effective, such as promoting human rights and the free flow of scientific information.. Above all, we must continue to foster good collaboration with physical societies in other parts of the world, with joint meetings and other activities.

To accomplish these broad goals, we must look within our own ranks for both ideas and help. Our objectives must reflect the consensus of our members. In this regard we must continue to make the Society more responsive to the needs of its members, communicating with them to find out how to best serve their needs, as well as those of the physics community at large. The APS should be an inclusive society, integrating the entire physics community. It should represent physicists in every sphere of activity: academia, industry and government laboratories; those working in basic and applied research; and those with Bachelor's degrees, Master's degrees, and PhDs.

We have had 100 years of spectacular physics advances, and we can envision similar achievements for the future. There is no question that the intellectual questions to be answered are very deep and manifold. There will be major discoveries that we cannot even anticipate, as well as new revolutionary technologies, and much more interdisciplinary work. Physics in the 21st century will require an environment in which all of its various manifestations can flourish. The APS will play an important role in fostering such an environment by continuing and strengthening its outreach activities.

My personal vision is an APS that enhances the ability of physicists to do their work, contribute to society, and play a role in establishing educational levels of excellence. I would like us to be seen as an organization that serves society as well as physics.

Jerome Friedman, a professor of physics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, assumed the APS presidency on January 1, 1999.


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