APS News

Focus on Committees

Two Complementary Committees Tackle Public Affairs

By Richard M. Todaro

William Frazer and Robert Richardson
William Frazer and Robert Richardson

"The Panel on Public Affairs studies what physics can do for the country while the Physics Policy Committee advocates what the country should be doing to support physics."

This oft-repeated sentence is used to describe the different but complementary goals of two key APS committees that address issues relating to public affairs.

The Panel on Public Affairs, created in 1974 and known by its acronym POPA, advises the President and the Council on various public policy issues that have a particular interest to physicists. Consisting of 19 members elected by Council and other ex officio members, POPA engages in a series of activities that William Frazer of the University of California, the current chair, said "can be put together under the idea of the APS trying to be of service to the broader society on matters within its technical competence."

"For example, we recently assisted APS President George Trilling in preparing a response to requests from a representative of the US Secretary of Energy for advice on the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste disposal site in Nevada," Frazer said.

A second type of POPA activity is initiating both large-scale studies and smaller scale reports. Large-scale studies can take several months to several years and go through a formal procedure involving the APS Council. Frazer said a prime current example are the technical issues raised by the proposed National Missile Defense System.

"There is currently a study on aspects of missile defense which will be completed early next year," he said. This study has been the subject of a number of reports in APS News (January, March, October 2001 issues).

Other APS studies, going back to the mid-seventies, have included light-water reactor safety, nuclear fuel cycles and waste management, and solar photovoltaic energy conversion, among others. These studies are available under Public Affairs on the main APS web site.

Like the major studies, the more modest POPA reports can also deal with a range of issues from energy and the environment to national security and help APS members become familiar with such issues.

"There are less formal reports called POPA reports where some of our members get together and do less extensive study," Frazer said. "We usually prepare these for education of and discussion by APS members."

Current POPA reports (as listed on the APS web site) include Patriot missile performance during the Gulf War, possible dangers posed by power lines and ordinary electrical appliances, and the relation of science and technology to economic growth.

A third type of POPA activity is to advise the APS leadership on official Statements of the American Physical Society. Frazer said such statements are formulated by POPA before consideration by the full APS Council.

APS Statements have ranged on topics from teaching Creationism in public schools to the rise of anti-Semitism in the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s to a statement on the technical feasibility and deployment of the National Missile Defense System. These statements are also available on the APS website (http://www.aps.org/policy/statements/).

The Physics Policy Committee (PPC) was initially called the Physics Planning Committee when it was established informally within POPA in early 1989 following the recommendation of a POPA task force on long-range planning. After being elevated to the status of a formal committee operating under APS bylaws in 1991, the name was changed in 1997 to the current Physics Policy Committee. There are 15 regular members, including the chair of POPA.

From the beginning, PPC served to advise the APS on governmental matters that might affect the physics or even larger scientific community. PPC statements are sent to the APS Council via POPA.

"Our principal function is to serve as an advisory committee for the APS leadership on issues related to the interaction between physicists and the national government," said Robert C. Richardson of Cornell, current chair of the PPC. "The PPC consists of a group of experienced people the APS can call upon for advice."

"We spend a lot of time monitoring funding support from the federal agencies in support of science. We try to help the APS form strategic alliances with other professional societies," Richardson said. "We do a little bit of lobbying. We have conversations with the staff support of the principal science committees in the Senate and House, and we talk to the heads of agencies."

Richardson described APS lobbying as a "gentle kind" designed to provide "appropriate guidance." Often this means following budgets through the approval process.

"We try to think of how to encourage the supporters of the science budget who are in Congress," he said.

Richardson noted that PPC got involved with the role of science in the leadership of the Department of Energy.

"We sponsored a group of people — it wasn't an official APS committee — to analyze the way the Department of Energy is authorized and gave congressional testimony on the role science plays in the leadership of the Department of Energy," he said.

But Richardson said that PPC tries to avoid simply making the "weak" argument that physicists just want more money from the government. Rather, he said the committee attempts to link what the physics community is able to do for the country with proper funding priorities to achieve such goals.

"If you say, 'hey, we need more money,' that is a very weak argument. What we need to say is, 'look, the government is relying on the contributions the physics community can make in these areas' and if there is an important opportunity the government is going to miss, we will make every effort to draw attention to that," Richardson said.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette