- American Physical Society Sites
- Meetings & Events
- Policy & Advocacy
- Careers In Physics
- About APS
- Become a Member
By Alan Chodos
In the 1990's, physics was in the doldrums in Germany. Enrollments in physics among college students had been declining throughout the decade. As the millennium approached, the German physics community resolved to do something about it.
The German Physical Society, working with the Federal Ministry for Education and Research, declared 2000 to be the Year of Physics, in part commemorating the centennial of Max Planck's quantum hypothesis. Five major events were planned, in Bonn and Berlin, and a budget of roughly half a million dollars per project was allocated. The five projects were titled: "Beyond the Milky Way"; "Trip to the Big Bang"; "Tamed Light"; "The Philosopher's Stone" [referring to silicon, as used in computers and information technology]; and "The Discovery of Chance". In addition to the main events, over 200 satellite activities in schools, universities and laboratories brought the year of physics to the entire country.
A description provided by the German Physical Society of one of the main events, "Tamed Light", gives a good idea of how these projects were conducted and what they achieved: " 'Don't wait for the people to come to us, go to where they are' was the motto of the physicists organizing the year's third event, held in June. They erected a marquee on Bonn's market square and filled it with experiments on lasers and quantum physics. They did not have to wait long for visitors. The first ones came even before the exhibits were ready and the idea of attracting passersby from the city center was wildly successful. A total of 15,000 people visited the exhibition tent in three days. "
As at the other Year of Physics events, the research staff was there (up to 16 hours a day) to explain the exhibits. Young undergraduate as well as graduate students joined with full professors, talking themselves hoarse to explain the mysteries of their branch of science to the visitors. These never ceased to marvel at the fact that the scientists were taking the trouble to bring their knowledge and enthusiasm literally to the marketplace."
According to data provided by the German Federal Statistical Office, the number of freshmen enrolled in physics doubled from 1998 to 2003, with the biggest annual jump occurring between 2001 and 2002. The graph also shows the total number of freshmen taking all kinds of science (including medicine and engineering) in each year, for comparison.
As a result of the success of the Year of Physics, there have been annual "Highlights of Physics" programs in Germany following 2000, and years structured similarly to the Year of Physics devoted to other sciences. Most importantly for other countries, the Year of Physics inspired the European Physical Society to suggest that 2005 be declared the World Year of Physics, celebrating the centennial of Einstein's miraculous year of 1905. This has been taken up by the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics, by UNESCO, by the Congress of the United States, and by the General Assembly of the United Nations, which declared 2005 the International Year of Physics last June.
The goal of the World Year of Physics, in the United States and elsewhere, is to reach out to the public in much the same way as the Germans did in 2000.
As readers of APS News know, in the US the APS is spearheading much of the activity, together with its sister societies, the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) and the American Institute of Physics (AIP). Considerable effort has gone into publicizing the World Year in the physics community, with the goal of stimulating local activities analogous to the "satellite events" that occurred in Germany in 2000; these could be public lectures, open houses, Saturday morning physics demonstration shows, physics on the road activities, science caf‚s, and similar activities that local organizers think would be most effective in their communities. APS is also working hard on four of its own projects, roughly analogous to the five major projects in Germany listed above. Two of these are aimed at middle school and high school respectively.
In addition, at least 16 Physics on the Road teams will be funded to undertake special World Year of Physics programs, and the distributed computing project Einstein@home will use LIGO data to search for gravitational waves. All these projects are described on the US World Year of Physics web site, www.physics 2005.org.
But there is a pronounced difference in scale. The four APS projects have received federal funding totaling a little over half a million dollars, whereas in Germany the funding was half a million dollars for each of their five projects. We hope that the APSprojects will be very successful, but since the population of the US is more than three times that of Germany, they probably will not have quite the impact that the Germans achieved in 2000.
That is not to say that the APS projects should have received dramatically more funding. The level of support provided, primarily from NSF and DOE, with a smaller amount from NIST, was commensurate with the staff and other resources that were available at APS, AAPT and AIP. A more interesting question relates not to the quantity of funding, but rather to the funding pathways, or lack thereof, that this country possesses to support outreach activities.
The two major activities of the physics community are research and education. Outreach plays an important supporting role for each of these, but it is a special case of neither. In thinking about where outreach belongs, it is useful to catalogue the benefits that, ideally, it brings to both the physics profession and the wider community:
• most of the basic research and many of the educational programs in physics are funded by the federal government. By informing the public about recent developments in physics, outreach helps the taxpayers understand what they are paying for;
• outreach oriented toward students can be an important motivator. Students find a subject more interesting when they appreciate what the larger questions are, and what the potential applications may be. Well-designed outreach can bring these issues vividly to life;
• at least one Nobel Prize winner in physics was attracted to the subject by a "physics on the road" demonstration. Those with the talent to become outstanding physicists often possess equal talents in other directions. Outreach can inspire them to consider physics as a career;
• outreach geared to the public and to legislators and other decision makers can enhance the support that physics is likely to receive in the budget process.
To summarize: outreach aids research by informing the public about the results of research, and conversely by encouraging support for the research enterprise. Outreach aids education by raising students' interest in and enthusiasm for physics, and by inspiring talented students to pursue the subject in more depth. Given these benefits, however, one finds that in this country, unlike the situation for research or education, there is no dedicated program of support for outreach activities.
The way the system is structured, outreach must be funded either from within programs that primarily fund research, or those that primarily fund education. Because outreach is a distinct activity that is neither research nor education, this system functions in an ad-hoc manner. Despite the best of intentions, excellent programs can be left unfunded, while, paradoxically, outreach funds can be awarded to recipients who did not ask for them and may not have any interest in using them.
If a proposal for outreach is submitted to what is primarily a research agency, the proposal may well get a sympathetic hearing and good reviews. But in a tight budget environment, the proposal will be competing directly with research, which is, after all, the core mission of the agency. It is only natural, then, for outreach proposals asking for substantial sums to be the first victims of budget pressures.
On the other hand, these agencies do recognize the value of outreach. In fact, all NSF proposals require the investigator not only to address the "intellectual merit" of the proposal, but also the "broader impacts", which includes answering questions like "Will the results be disseminated broadly to enhance scientific and technological understanding? What may be the benefits of the proposed activity to society?"—questions that suggest outreach as a part of the proposed activity.
Attempts have been made to incorporate outreach into some of the regular research grants. Investigators have been required to show that a specified fraction of their time has been spent on some type of education or outreach. Sometimes this works out well: scientists who would not otherwise do so are forced to think about communicating their results to a general audience, and some of them find the experience enjoyable and the outcome successful. But often the effort is wasted because the investigators are focused on their research and resent the mandated diversion of their energies from their primary task.
If funding through a research agency can lead to problems, why not try an agency whose primary interest is education, such as the Education and Human Resources Directorate of the NSF? This can be a bumpy ride if one is accustomed to the standards and protocols that prevail in the world of research. Education proposals must incorporate rigorous processes of evaluation, according to criteria that are relevant to education, and more particularly to innovation in education. The investigator must put in place procedures that will measure the quality and quantity of information that has been transmitted to the target audience. While this may be the primary goal of an experimental educational project, it is often not so for one dedicated to outreach. The investigator may want to spend his or her time designing a project to excite enthusiasm for physical science in middle school children. An important part of the goal might be to reach as large a group of students as possible. But the funding agency would rather spend less money to reach a large group, and more to collect data from a smaller group on the educational benefits of the activity. The investigator finds that the project has been skewed away from outreach and toward a study of the educational outcomes. This is not necessarily bad—it is just peripheral to the interests and aims of the original project.
In the current system, outreach has no natural home. It is an orphan. There are many examples of good projects that struggle or that are never realized because of lack of even minimal funding. Physics on the road teams, based mainly at universities but also at science museums and other institutions, operate on a shoestring, getting by on the enthusiasm and dedication of the team members. A small amount of extra support would go a long way to increasing the number of teams and the level of their activity. But there is no place for them to apply for funds.
In my opinion, a necessary step is to bring outreach out from under the umbrella of research and education, where it doesn't belong. The funding agencies each need a separate office for outreach, with an independent budget. This budget will, of course, be vastly smaller than the corresponding ones for research and education. But its independence will allow proposals to be reviewed, and their outcomes to be evaluated, according to criteria that are relevant for outreach. Funds can be channeled to those who have the enthusiasm and the talent to do the outreach effectively.
As the German experience shows, outreach can be a powerful tool to enhance enrollments and to raise the visibility of physics dramatically. The World Year of Physics is an excellent opportunity to bring the excitement and importance of physics to the public, but to sustain that effort and to produce significant results, we need a system in this country in which outreach joins research and education as a recognized independent activity within the physics profession.
As Associate Executive Officer of APS, Alan Chodos is heavily involved in the US plans for the World Year of Physics. The opinions expressed in this article are his alone and do not reflect any official position of the APS.
©1995 - 2018, AMERICAN PHYSICAL SOCIETY
APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.