The Back Page
Looking Back and Looking Forward for APS
By Helen Quinn
Any organization, no matter how healthy, needs a periodic review, looking back to see what it has done well and what not so well, and looking forward (as well as it can) to see what it needs to change to continue to be of value in a changing world. During my tenure as President I wanted APS to do that. Fortunately, other members of the Executive Board agreed, to the extent that many did significant work outside of meetings, gathering input from many others so they could report to the board a “state of the society” in some area of our activity. Their efforts turned my idea into a useful exercise.
An organization like the APS is more like an oil-tanker than a ketch. We cannot, and should not try to, change directions quickly. All the more reason that we need to look ahead and make the small course corrections now that will avoid our becoming stranded in the future. I think that looking ahead is happening today at APS. The discussions of the Board and Council in the past year have helped prompt a more active stance about this. Of course a single review is not enough; future Boards and Councils need to continue to try to look ahead and to make the needed course corrections.
In our June 2004 Executive Board retreat we spent most of our time on a “long range planning” activity. My brother, Richard Arnold, who does such work professionally, had volunteered his time to facilitate this discussion (after I had bugged him long enough with questions about how to make this work). His effort and effectiveness were appreciated by all who attended that meeting. Actually we did not plan anything, but we did do something that I think was much more useful. (I am skeptical of grand plans to be perfect.) Each board member had reviewed one aspect of the Society’s activity. After hearing all their reports, we talked for a day and came to agreement on what are the major issues that need attention as we move forward. Nothing particularly surprising came up, but the discussions did identify some real challenges. I can already see numerous ways in which those discussions have led to changes, new actions by staff, new efforts of advisory committees, and generally a more forward-looking approach to decisions about what matters for the society.
Let me briefly comment on some of the issues. These comments are my own opinions, not necessarily positions that are shared by anyone else. I will address three major activities, journals, meetings, and our Washington office. This is not to devalue other areas; those who know me know how important I think education and outreach work are, and how much of my APS activity and time in the past year was related to improving the visa situation for our international students and colleagues, but space does not allow me to cover everything.
A critical issue for the future of the Society is the future of our journals. For the fiscal health of APS we rely on the journals to break even, or even do a little better than that (since the membership dues do not support all the functions that members say in surveys they would like to see the society doing.) We have built up a funding reserve. That is essential, since it protects the Society from devastation by fluctuations in income in the rapidly changing economics of journal publishing. (During my tenure in the presidential line outside actions, over which we had no control, and which we could not possibly have forseen, caused fluctuations in journal income of over half a million dollars in both directions!) We use this reserve also as if it were an endowment. Some of the income from investment of the reserve provides a source of funds for program activity, and the rest is reinvested to maintain the real value of the reserve. The Board now has a conscious policy on this, and sets an upper limit on budgeted withdrawals from reserves.
The first goal of the journals, however, must be to support the dissemination of scientific information as effectively and efficiently as possible. Our journals are highly regarded, not only for the strength of the science that is published there, but because we have moved, under our current Editor-in-Chief, Marty Blume, to a model which is fully electronic (with paper available for a price that reflects the extra cost that it adds to the process). In the current year the internal journal processing is rapidly moving to a paperless system. Both in internal processing and in the composition process we have realized very significant cost savings, and these are reflected in the small changes in prices of the past two years, even as submissions continue to rise significantly every year. Marty Blume has also been a leader of international discussions to encourage all journals to take on their share of the responsibility for dealing with ethical issues such a plagiarism and scientific fraud, a role he is justifiably proud of playing, and one which does credit to the attention that APS has focused on these issues through its ethics task force and follow-on activities engendered by that report.
So today, our journals are strong and healthy, but that is only one side of the coin. The flip side is that the nature of scientific communication is still changing rapidly. "Open access’’ is one pressure, but so far the term means many different models, none of them as yet of proven financial viability. APS publishing cannot sit still and rest on the accomplishments of the past. We must continue to modify the way we do business to stay abreast of changes and, if possible, to lead the way to better serving the needs of science. Whatever changes we make must be made while maintaining the flow of articles through the system, and paying attention both to costs and to long-term accessibility of the information. I do not know what the answers are or will be, but I do know that our journals in ten years will work as differently from today, as today’s do compared to ten years ago. We need to lead the changes, not be left behind by them.
I see another challenge, a challenge to the members of APS as much as it is to the journal publishing system. Our journals are only as good as our refereeing makes them. Refereeing is a community responsibility. It is not rewarded in any significant way. Good refereeing takes time and intellectual effort. It is my impression that, at least in some subfields, physicists have decided effectively that refereeing does not work well enough to be worth much bother. If they do it at all, it is often late and often slipshod work. The general belief is that the only reward for doing it well and fast is more such work to do. This scientific “tragedy of the commons” must be reversed or the peer review system of evaluating papers will fail. (Some say it already has.) Either we need to support the system we have, or we need to invent a better one, rather than pretending that all is well but failing to do this part of our work responsibly.
Meetings are another form of scientific communication, historically a very important one. But do our APS meetings serve us well today? APS meetings fall into two classes: unit meetings and general meetings. Unit meetings seem in general to be healthy, they serve their constituents well. Of the two big general meetings the first, the March meeting, also looks healthy. It is valued by the community that it serves, and regarded by many as the place to be to hear the latest. Its attendance keeps growing. It was well over 6, 000 this year. In contrast the April meeting seems to me to struggle for a reason to exist. Its attendance hovers around 1,000 and that is after lots of work by staff to encourage divisions to participate more fully. For most of the subfields of physics that it serves it is not the most important meeting of their year. For example, it is quite unlikely that a high energy physics experiment would release any new result at the April meeting. Those who do attend enjoy some excellent plenary talks that cover a breadth of physics, and find that the opportunity to hear about fields other than their own is exciting and interesting, but few can afford to attend for those reasons. Some excellent invited sessions are arranged, but too often the speakers appear only for their talks and leave again the same day. Some tell me the meeting is a good opportunity for their students to give a talk, but they don’t attend to see their students talking to almost empty rooms. Can we afford to continue to run a meeting of this type? (At my urging, this year’s President, Marvin Cohen, will set up a task force to address this question. Because I am so opinionated already, I declined the invitation to serve on it.)
In recent years the physics community has been fortunate to have a strong lobby in the APS Washington office. These are very difficult budget times, but I am quite certain that, without the groundwork that had been carefully laid over a period of several years, making the case for physical science, the budgets we are now seeing would be significantly worse. Effective physics lobbying is critical and will not happen without coordination. While we are an international society, we are also the American Physical Society. It is important that we recognize that if we do not speak for physics budgets in this country, no one else can fill that void. Only relatively recently in the history of APS did the Society reach this recognition. We are steadily building effectiveness and credibility in Washington, but we need to continue to develop and expand this effort. Whether it is the letter-writing efforts at our major meetings, or the one-on-one visits to congressional or senatorial offices by members, we need more of it. In lobbying we need partners, both from other sciences and from industry. Our Washington office has been key to forging the necessary partnerships. When I went to lobby for physical sciences accompanied by the Chair of FASEB (the Federation of Societies for Experimental Biology), the President of the ACS (American Chemical Society) and AMS (American Mathematics Society), our voices together made more impression than had each of us lobbied separately for our own area of science. We need to continue to learn how to be more effective in arguing for science funding, and we need strong staff support in Washington to help us do that. By law this particular effort can only be supported by membership dues. We must increase our membership by recruiting our colleagues to better support this effort. Of course the membership numbers also help validate the Society’s voice in Washington. So I urge each US member to recruit at least one new APS member this year, to strengthen our society first and its voice in Washington second.
As Past President I have one more task for APS, and that is to lead the search committee that must find replacements for our Editor-in-Chief, Marty Blume, and our Treasurer, Tom McIlrath, both of whom wish to retire at the end of 2006. These are key positions, two of the team of three lead APS staff. Both Marty and Tom have served APS immeasurably, and to replace them we need the best possible people. We are beginning to advertise these positions with detailed job descriptions (see page 7 of this issue), but please, if you have good ideas about who could do these jobs well, or would be interested in either of them yourself, drop me a note (firstname.lastname@example.org). The search committee will appreciate your input.
Helen Quinn is Professor of Physics at SLAC. She served as APS President in 2004. This article is adapted from her retiring Presidential address delivered at the 2005 APS April meeting in Tampa.
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