APS News

APS Task Force Recommends Ways to Better Serve Industrial Members

The APS can and should do more to serve the needs of its industrial members, according to a task force on industrial physics that submitted its report to the Executive Board in September.

The task force was formed to assess the situation of APS activities for industrial physicists and make recommendations of how APS can better serve this segment of the membership.

About 20% of regular APS members are industrial physicists. Over the past 20 years, this proportion has been falling, even as the percentage of physics PhDs employed by industry has been increasing. In the 1990s, 56% of physics PhDs worked in industry, up from 36% in the 1950s.

“At a time when the importance of physics to the nation is increasingly felt via its contributions to economic growth and prosperity, the role of the physicists who make these contributions in the APS has declined to the point of being almost invisible in the major APS activities,” the report says in its introduction. Nowadays, many industrial physicists work in small companies, rather than the giant basic research labs of the past, such as Bell Labs, GE, IBM, Dupont, and Xerox. Today’s industrial physicists work on projects that are more applied, closer to project development. There are still physicists in large firms, but the nature of their work has changed, said task force chair Charles Duke. “The global economy has changed the game. Industrial physics is a whole lot more important,” said Duke. Increasingly, support of physics research and development is motivated primarily by economic impact. “In the era of the global economy, if physics as a profession wants more investment, it has to deliver economic prosperity, and the people who do that are industrial physicists. Industrial physics is very important for the health of physics in general, and physics societies,” said Duke.

“It’s a very different world,” said APS Executive Officer Judy Franz. It is important for APS to retain this segment of its membership, she said. “All those who think of themselves as as physicists are important to the community.”

As part of its study, the task force made use of a recent survey of industrial members. The survey found that industrial physicists use physics on the job, but they are less likely to attend APS meetings and publish in APS journals. They are connected to the APS primarily through Physics Today and APS News. Most (almost 70 percent) belong to some other professional society in addition to APS. According to the survey, many industrial physicists are unaware of the Forum on Industrial and Applied Physics (FIAP) and its activities. “These people feel like they’re on the outside,” said Duke. 

One finding of the survey was that industrial physicists, who do not often attend APS meetings, need improved ways to network. The task force recommended investigating the possibility of facilitating an online network, similar to myspace.com, which would enable networking and interactions among industrial physicists and would contain a list of persons together with their expertise. The task force also recommends improving the on-line search engine for APS meetings, the Bulletin of the American Physical Society (BAPS) to enable more complex searches. An improved search of the archives of APS meeting programs could help industrial physicists to find experts in a certain field of physics who can be consulted about a problem, find students with certain skills for job openings, and restrict the search to a geographic region to allow face-to-face interaction with experts without having to travel.

The Society should also improve recognition for industrial members, the task force says. Industrial members do not receive a proportionate share of APS awards, prizes, and Fellowship, according to the task force. This issue should be addressed and remedied, the task force suggests, and efforts should be made to secure more active participation of its industrial members in APS , especially prize and award committees. More Fellowship slots should be allotted to industrial physicists, and the APS should sponsor a prize for the industrial applications of physics in the biannual years that the American Institute of Physics (AIP) Prize for the Industrial Applications of Physics is not awarded.

Academic physicists publish papers and attend meetings, and are rewarded for those activities. “That culture is not shared by the new industrial physics community,” said Duke. “The new industrial physics members have a different value system.” They produce products, not knowledge. Industrial physicists are discouraged from attending meetings and publishing papers so that they will not give away trade secrets. Therefore, recognition for industrial members needs to take into account their different value system, the task force says. Since industrial physicists need access to all the physics literature, not just APS journals, one important finding of the survey was that they need ways to locate information from a variety of sources. Many work as consultants or in small companies and do not have institutional access to the literature.

One currently available resource industrial physicists may find useful is Scitation, a free online search engine for physics literature. Many industrial physicists could use this tool, but may not be aware of it or know how to use it, so the task force recommended APS draw attention to this resource. However, although Scitation offers a way to search for papers, users must still have a subscription to the journal or purchase individual articles in order to access the full text of articles they wish to view.

Expanding and improving APS member article packs could also help industrial members, especially those in small companies that don’t have journal subscriptions. Currently APS members can purchase article packs of 20 APS journal articles for $50. Those article packs are limited to articles published in the past three years. The task force suggests that to make those article packs more useful to industrial members, this be expanded to include all online issues of APS journals. They also recommend that those who purchase an article should be allowed to share it with their colleagues as long as no copyright laws are broken. The task force also recommends creating new categories of membership that would bundle journal article packs with the membership fee. These classes of membership might be attractive to industrial consultants and physicists at small companies.

Because industrial physicists need access to all the physics literature, not just APS journals, the task force recommends APS “work with other AIP member societies to create all-AIP-and- member-society journal packs for individual APS members and to allow AIP and member societies to create similar offerings to small firms as well as individual members.” This is an important recommendation, the task force emphasized. “This is what the APS is all about: Disseminating the knowledge of physics to the folks that can use this knowledge to create products and services that serve mankind and generate economic prosperity. This is a high calling for the APS in the 21st century,” the task force report says. However, this recommendation will be challenging to implement, and would require coordination with AIP and other member societies.

APS staff and committees will consider and attempt to implement the task force recommendations. The other members of the task force were Alex Panchula, Stefan Zollner, Mohsen Yeganeh (Exxon Research & Engineering), and Chris Armstrong, (Keithley Instruments). Judy Franz served as APS liaison.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Contributing Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff