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Irving Lerch enjoys, and responds to, a friendly roast at the APS Council meeting in November.
After over eleven years as the first APS director of international scientific affairs, Irving Lerch is retiring to pursue more personalized interests in the global science arena. During his tenure with the Society, he headed a fledgling program to provide aid to the physics community of the former Soviet Union, distributing about $18 million, and developing an Internet access program and journal distribution program, as well as acting as a catalyst in establishing the International Science Foundation to monitor and implement such programs.
Lerch was born in Chicago, IL, in 1938, the same year physicist Enrico Fermi was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics. So it should not be surprising that Lerch chose to become a physicist himself. "It didn't hurt that physicists could control the energy of stars and thereby engulf the world in a pall of fear," he recalled.
After attending West Point, Lerch served as an officer in the 101st Airborne Division. He then attended the University of Chicago for advanced studies in physics, becoming a medical physicist.
He wrote his PhD thesis on radiation damage to enzyme systems, and subsequently joined the research faculty at the university's Argonne Cancer Research Hospital (which later became the Franklin McLean Memorial Institute). He built a laboratory to measure the transmission spectra of low energy x-rays used for medical imaging, and also became involved in biological modeling and computational studies, as well as researching radiation effects in tissues and dosimetry systems.
His long involvement with international activities began when he accepted an appointment to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, Austria, where he served from 1973 to 1976. In 1976, he moved to New York University, where he spent the next 18 years administering a program in radiation oncology physics.
By 1991, the world had changed dramatically with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Lerch's involvement with the APS began as a sabbatical from NYU, during which he was to begin building an international program for the Society. The objectives were ambitious: minister to the growing foreign APS membership, save the physics enterprise of the newly emerging states of the former Soviet Union, develop a partnership with China, and invigorate APS relations with European, Latin American and Asian physicists, all while finding external resources to accomplish these far-reaching tasks.
It was far more than could be accomplished in a single year, so Lerch accepted a permanent position with the Society and he retired from NYU when the APS relocated from NYC to the new American Center for Physics in College Park, MD. The problems plaguing the scientific enterprise in the former Soviet Union occupied the majority of his efforts for the first few years. "Because the former SSR scientific establishment was so large and well integrated, there was fear that its loss would have a deleterious impact on the international scientific enterprise, and ultimately on our domestic enterprise in the US," said Lerch.
This was especially critical given the fact that the scientific community had become increasingly international since the end of World War II. By the 1990s, two thirds of the science being carried out was being done outside the US. Therefore, "integrating the US enterprise with the international community was absolutely essential," said Lerch. "Because if we don't have that type of integration, then our domestic enterprise is balefully imbalanced."
Ironically, while the world scientific community is facing a wide variety of issues today, in Lerch's eyes, "it's still the same sort of problem. We've become so globalized and the international community is so integrated, that any tendency within the world scientific community to regionalization must inevitably isolate the US" As evidence, he points to the formation by large laboratories of regional coalitions for the more efficient exchange of information—a worthy goal, but US participation is minimal, which Lerch finds troubling.
Even before the 9/11 tragedy, US policy was becoming increasingly restrictive, with export control laws, technology alert lists, and most recently, tighter restrictions on issuance of visas to foreign scientists. "While these are designed to protect the US homeland, they do not take into account the fact that the US benefits enormously from international exchange," said Lerch. "Once you have a system that is absolutely dependent on the free exchange of information, any impediment to that information flow is bound to cause considerable injury."
Despite his retirement, Lerch plans to remain active in international affairs. He is helping organize a scientific workshop in Azerbaijan this April in conjunction with the Civilian Research and Development Foundation, and will continue to be deeply involved in the ongoing restructuring of the science program at UNESCO. He is also considering joining a National Academy study of the science enterprise in Armenia. "Things are not looking that leisurely at the moment," he said. "But a number of us 'senior citizens' are convinced that science, technology, engineering, and science education can and should be harnessed to accelerate economic and cultural growth in developing countries."
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