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It Takes a Real Community to Keep Physics Healthy

By Jim Tsang and Craig Davis

Craig Davis and Jim Tsang
Craig Davis and Jim Tsang

There are many positives for the US physics community. Intellectually, ours is a very productive era and physics remains at the forefront of innovation, invention and insight. Internationally, the US remains a destination of choice for many of our colleagues as a place to work, meet and publish. Outstanding students from around the world come to obtain their PhDs at our universities. Many of our graduates obtain outstanding positions in industry. Unemployment for our recent PhDs in 1997, the last year when detailed statistics are available, was only 0.7%, half of that for all science and engineering graduates. In that year, about half of all Federal research obligations in the physical sciences went to physics as compared, for example, to 19% for chemistry. Seven percent of the total US obligations for research in 1997 went to physics, the largest amount of any tabulated discipline except for biology.

At the same time, many of our colleagues believe this is a bad time for US physics. Our government has decreased its funding for physics research in recent years. We need to considerably increase the number of native-born graduate students. A prominent national leader ranked his undergraduate physics course as one of the worse parts of his education.ÿ We are told that while the 20th century was our century, the 21st will belong to the biologists. We feel we have an unnaturally difficult time obtaining a proper hearing for the importance of physics research to the nation. Twelve percent of our recent graduates in 1997 said they could not find full-time employment that was "closely related" or "somewhat related" to their degrees. This was the highest number for any science or engineering field.

Over the next 5 months, a series of articles will appear in APS News considering several aspects of the current situation of the US physics community. They will not deal with the intellectual health of our profession, which is in excellent condition. They will concentrate on providing a framework for looking at the state of our profession. They will consider our institutions and workplaces, the opportunities provided for new graduates, the frustrations that plague the careers of both junior and senior physicists, the students we attract, the education we provide, how our fellow citizens view us, and our relationship to our sister disciplines.

These articles have been created because too few APS members are trying to make a difference in how our community fares in the give and take of US society. Our love for physics causes many of us to think that only idiots cannot recognize the value of what we do, and will not generously support physics research. The record in ÿfact shows that the physics community has many friends. In spite of what is widely accepted as pitiful efforts to educate the general public about what physics is, and why it is valuable, a majority of our leaders and fellow citizens accept that there is a minimum level of support for physics research required for the well-being of the nation.

On the other hand, they do ask that a good case be made for the next dollar that goes to physics rather than tax cuts, research in health care, aid to education, etc. The physics community has had problems with arguments about why we should get that next dollar. These arguments have little resemblance to physics, and a great deal of resemblance to history or the social sciences, where differences in personal background, experience, and circumstances can produce a decisive reordering of priorities and values. These arguments must be made both on paper, and in person-to-person encounters, through give-and-take and dialogue. The health of the physics profession today requires the active involvement of physicists, who understand what physics is, with their representatives, bosses, and other non-scientist fellow citizens. The argument can only be made when the values of the other party are recognized and understood. This cannot be done effectively by a fraction of a percent of the 40,000-person APS membership. It will require the involvement of many members, the more the better.

For this reason, these essays will not attempt to make explicit arguments on behalf of physics. They will introduce background information on several critical topics related to the physics community and its relation to the larger US community. This will allow readers to make their own arguments, and craft cases that are relevant to their experiences. The series of essays will serve as guides to a website which will be a repository of data, links to more data, and interpretive materials from which the readers can construct their own models and form their own judgments.

For all the difficulties of the present, we must acknowledge that the past half-century has been a period of tremendous growth for American physics.ÿ Our boom was fueled by several different forces. These included the intellectual power and success of modern physics, the role of the physics community in helping win World War II, the cold war, Sputnik, the space race, the end of the cold war and the opening of the People's Republic of China. While the first is indigenous to physics and continues to fuel its growth, especially in the private sector, the others are singular historic events whose impacts decline as they grow more distant. We can only guess at how the last two events affected the growth of the US physics community in the 1990s. The recent historical record suggests that our growth was not solely due to internal factors. Each of us must determine how to respond to this fact as we seek future growth in the support of physics by the public sector.

More and more physicists are working in the private sector. In many cases, their work has a strong physics character; in some cases, it is very remote from what they learned in graduate school. There are many differences between academia and industry. Understanding these differences in the present economic context will help us take advantage of them. The substantial majority of our graduate students will never be academics, and many of them will have careers in industry. Industry is an excellent home for certain types of problems and a poor home for other types. What can be done to make it a better home for physics research? How can we better train our students for future industrial careers?

When most physicists think of funding for physics research, they think of the US government. If we think of the present as hard times, we look at the steady growth of funding for biomedical research, and the lack of growth in federal funding for physics. Many of our colleagues believe that this is the product of conscious choice, a cruel division of the "research pie" that leaves us asÿbeggars with our noses to the window of the posh biomedical restaurant. An understanding of the federal budget process shows that the science part of the budget is certainly the product of choice, but not necessarily choices about scientific priorities and opportunities. In looking at the growth of biomedical research and the NIH, there is a chicken-and-egg character to the victory that makes it hard to tell which was the cause and which was the effect. In the case of the problems of federal funding for physics research, and the budgets of the Defense Department, Department of Energy, and NASA, our problems are related to the budgetary pressures on the agencies in which physics funding is largely housed. As such, we should recognize the high regard in which the physics community is held, and must think about how to effectively communicate to our legislators and others in government our view of national needs.

The doleful tale of science education in the US should be well-known. This is a critical issue for US physicists. It is critical for the pipeline that supplies new physicists, and scientists and engineers in other fields. It is critical for the creation of an informed citizenry that can make reasoned choices on the many issues with significant technical content that are part of the public agenda today. It is critical for how our fellow citizens view physics, since for many of them, their high school and college courses are their only direct contact with the subject and physicists. The quality of a teacher in this respect can cast a long shadow. The APS has a broad range of activities in education. The problems are vast and much more thought and effort is needed to produce improvements.

As rivals, Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton disagreed on most issues. Interestingly, they did ÿagree on the failure of the scientific community to effectivelyÿhelp Americans understand what it is about, what it is doing, and how it will change the future. At CalTech, in January, 2000, Clinton said, "we have not done a good enough job in helping all Americans to understand why we need very, very large investment inÿscience and technology." A few months earlier, Gingrich wrote in an op-ed piece that was reprinted in APS News, "... most scientists by definition would rather be in their laboratories studying, at conferences learning, or in a classroom teaching than appearing in public settings and appealing for public support. Unfortunately, part of their mind set seems to be a determination that their work is so obviously important that they should not have to explain it...." While Bill and Newt are history now, their message is still current. In the next few months, through the APS News and the APS website, we hope to make clear to all members of the APS the benefits, both to the physics community and the nation, that come from an APS membership that is informed about the major issues which affect the health of the physics community in the US, and is willing to work on those issues.

Craig Davis is Manager of the Physics Department, Ford Research Laboratory. He was chair of FIAP and is now a member of POPA and the APS Council.

James C. Tsang is a member of the research staff at the IBM T. J. Watson Research Center studying the optical properties of silicon devices. He is the current Vice Chair of the APS' Panel on Public Affairs and was an AAAS-Sloan Foundation Fellow in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette