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National Security Concerns Reflect Shortage of American Physicists

By Alan Chodos

Last July, I wrote an article that appeared on the Op-Ed page of the New York Times under the headline: Wanted: American Physicists. The article was motivated by the recent security crisis at some of our national laboratories, which has been fueled in part by the large number of foreign-born scientists who are employed there or who pass through as visitors. My point was that this reflects the acute shortage of American-born physicists (and other scientists). I further blamed this state of affairs on the systematic underfunding of basic physics research by Congress over the intervening decades, and suggested that matters had gotten even worse in the 1990s after the end of the Cold War.

In the wake of the article, I was exposed to a variety of different opinions. I am grateful for the opportunity afforded by the pages of APS News to amplify my own views.

First let me stress that, despite the decline in numbers among American physicists, I am certainly not advocating the practice of any discrimination towards their foreign counterparts. By and large, the foreign students who are being educated in American graduate schools are well qualified and fully deserve to be here. They generally turn into excellent scientists, and many of them choose to remain in this country, thereby contributing to American society either as physicists or in other jobs where their scientific training can be put to good use. Science traditionally has been, and should continue to be, an international enterprise in which the ideas are important and their source is irrelevant. In that spirit, we should welcome qualified students into our graduate programs no matter where they come from.

On the other hand, some of the people I heard from did take what was to me a distressingly rigorous economic view. To them, physics is a commodity, and our supply of physicists coming, increasingly, from abroad is seen as completely analogous to the same situation with regard to athletic shoes or television sets. Opinion among them divides into the free-traders who think global market forces should rule the day (let's get the most physics at the cheapest price) and those who, detecting a sinister plot among government, industry and universities to keep down the cost of physics research by fomenting a glut of foreign physicists, call for a protectionist remedy.

My guess is that most Americans would perceive more forces at work than just the competition between them and foreigners for the same physics jobs. For one thing, there are many other avenues that a technologically oriented American undergraduate can pursue. The expanding world of computers, the Internet and the Web offer more and better paying jobs than the world of academic physics. Hardly any of the sons and daughters of my colleagues are becoming basic scientists, but many of them are going into the computer industry or to Wall Street. These choices are generally not available to students who come from abroad directly after their undergraduate years.

In addition, there are less tangible factors that influence the career choices of American undergraduates. My memory of the 1960s is not perfect, but I retain a sense that those of us who went into basic science did so with the expectation that our work would be valued by the nation as a whole. This was partly due to the space race with the Soviet Union, partly to the general ambience of the cold war, and partly, perhaps, to a starry-eyed idealism that was a legacy of the rhetoric of Camelot.

There were also the heroes of the recent past, still alive or not long dead, principally Einstein, but others too like Bohr, Heisenberg, Lee and Yang, Oppenheimer-great scientists who had done great things, and who inspired us to try for greatness ourselves. One wonders whether there are analogous figures today who might have a similar ability to kindle the imagination of potential young scientists and seduce them away from their preordained career paths in the commercial world.

There can be no doubt that the decrease in the population of American-born physicists is a genuine effect. The question remains, however: do we have a real problem here? Or should we just let nature take its course and watch as the American physicist heads for extinction?

Certainly this effect creates a difficulty for those of our national laboratories that deal with classified information, as amply illustrated by the uproar over the possible spying incident at Los Alamos. But perhaps these labs can tighten their security procedures and be extra careful whom they hire-these are the kinds of remedies that Congress is proposing. Are there any other reasons to worry?

I think there are other security issues involved, beyond the safeguarding of nuclear secrets. One simply has the feeling that an adequately trained supply of American physicists is a good investment, perhaps even a crucial one, in the event of unexpected challenges to our national security. These could be threats from other nations, new scientific discoveries environmental problems, or even all those irresponsible asteroids speeding through the solar system.

One would expect universities to be relatively free of any bias having to do with the national origin of their students and faculty, and to a large extent it is true. But even here, one detects among the members of graduate admissions committees an uneasiness that is directly proportional to the fraction of foreign students being admitted. The abundance of foreign students is not the problem, but rather the absence of Americans.

But of course the ability to change this situation rests very little with professors in universities, or even with teachers of physics in high school and junior high. There has to be a renewal of the idea that the goals that drive basic research are important to the nation as a whole.

Partly this can be achieved by an increase in funding. The continual decline of funds for basic research since the 1960s has had a demoralizing effect on research, which has been exacerbated by occasional dramatic events, like the termination of the Supercollider project in 1993. One cannot credibly improve the attractiveness of doing basic research without a substantial reversal of the decades-long record of indifference and neglect.

But there is a spiritual side to this issue as well, and therein lies my biggest concern. As a discipline, physics is dedicated to asking fundamental questions about how the world works and how the universe has evolved. A nation that has lost interest in these questions, or that is willing to delegate that interest to scientists recruited from abroad, is in danger of degenerating into a state of meaningless self-absorption. One hopes it is not too late to summon the collective will to renew our commitment to basic science, and thereby to help restore the sense of national spirit and purpose that will keep us strong and prepared as we embark on the challenges of the new millennium.

Alan Chodos is a senior research physicist at Yale University and Chair of the APS Publication Oversight Committee.


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