APS News

Kadanoff Stresses Education, Outreach Initiatives

Leo Kadanoff (University of Chicago) assumed the APS presidency on January 1, 2007. In the following interview with APS News, he discusses his priorities for the Society during his presidential year.


Leo Kadanoff
Photo by Sergei Obukhov
Q: What do you see as some of the most important issues facing the physics community today, and how can the APS address some of these issues?

A: This year (and last year as well) US physicists have had the duty and pleasure of responding to the recommendations in the National Academy of Sciences Report, Rising above the Gathering Storm. That report pointed out that the long-term economic health of this country required additional investment in research and education related to the physical sciences. This report represents views which have gained considerable support from both houses of Congress, both sides of the aisle, and the executive branch as well. All last year, under John Hopfield's leadership, APS worked hard to advocate the adoption of the research-related recommendations of this report. Mike Lubell and the whole Washington office pitched in to support this report, as did the APS and March Meeting leadership, together with many members of APS.

Now, following APS Council and Executive Board action, we are prepared to work as well for the education and outreach based recommendations of the Gathering Storm report. The APS will contribute to making the public better aware of the nature and importance of physics research, starting with a DOE and NSF program for explaining particle physics and moving outward to the entirety of physics. Alan Chodos, APS Associate Executive Officer, will lead these efforts. We shall continue to expand our programs to better prepare high school and middle school teachers of physics and other sciences. Education at all levels, formal and informal, will form a major part of our advocacy and outreach efforts.

Q: Why do you believe improving education is so important?

A: I believe that what we are facing in the United States, and probably in many other countries, is a crisis. Many people who feel that they're educated don't really know anything about science. They also don't really know anything about how the world works. They're not fully able to think logically and form conclusions based on the evidence. I'd like to see evidence-based thought more commonplace among the educated population. Science can play an important role in helping people think logically. There is a perception among the public that science is mainly important because it produces drugs and medical benefits. In my view, science is important because it enables us to better understand the world. In addition, science brings large long run effects on the quality of life, which tend to be ignored in the short-ranged thinking endemic to individuals, businesses, and governments. One potential effect of better education might be to produce increased awareness of long-term consequences of present actions and inactions.

Scientists have an opportunity and a responsibility to bring our knowledge of the world to a broader public. That means improving the quality of education from kindergarten through high school, college and graduate school. That also means making the public aware of scientific values and of the long-run value of attempts to understand the world.

Q: What do you plan to focus on during your term as APS President?

A:  Of course, I shall support Ted Hodapp (APS Director of Education) in his fine work on teacher training programs. We intend to expand these programs to include work with more universities and colleges. The APS work has the very exciting characteristic of bringing together professional physicists with education researchers, schools of education, and professional teachers. I want to see this work continue and reach more students. I also wish to make us a leader across the board in advocating for education. Good citizens need to use evidence-based thinking. Consequently, I will argue that APS should advocate for spending aimed at improving educational attainment in mathematics and across the sciences.

Back home at the APS, I intend to work on coordinating the work of the three different APS work-places and on coordinating the work of the three operating officers of the APS. Our organization is based upon the work of three equal operating officers, the Executive Officer (Judy Franz), the Publisher and Treasurer (Joe Serene), and the Editor-in-Chief. Joe is new to his job, replacing the retiring Tom McIlrath. Gene Sprouse is soon to replace the retiring Marty Blume as Editor-in-Chief. With two new officers, it behooves the President to pay lots of attention to helping coordinate the work at the top.  Luckily I can do that because during my term both the jobs of Past President and that of President Elect will be filled by people with a major interest in and knowledge of the legislative branch and the executive branch of US government. I therefore hope and expect to lean upon these elected officers, John Hopfield and Artie Bienenstock, asking them to each take a major role in our outreach to Washington. As soon as our new Vice President, Cherry Murray, grabs hold (and tells me what kind of work she wishes to do) I shall try to have all four of us work in parallel, each thinking particularly about his or her special area. With advice and guidance from my fellow members of the presidential line, I hope to be able to make wise suggestions to the operating officers.

Q: What challenges do you see facing the APS in the next year?

A: Each operating officer and each function of the APS faces major challenges. The editor-in-chief must work to improve the journals to meet the very high quality of our competition and the difficulty brought about by the wide dissemination of preprints and reprints. We have a major project in which we can produce extra value for the reader and subscriber to our journals by having a website that has lots more stuff in it than you can directly find in a given Physical Review article. I argue that this website development should be supplemented by an increased effort to improve the editorial process by having more editors devoting more editorial effort to each paper.

The Publisher and Treasurer also comes into this in that the journals must continue to pay for themselves, despite the fact that we continue to face new models for how the costs of scientific publication will be repaid. So, working in combination, the Editor-In-Chief and the Publisher and Treasurer must keep our journals excellent and self-supporting. The people in these offices have done a wonderful job in recent years. The new people are poised to continue this fine record.

I have already described some of the increase in our outreach and educational work. The new outreach work of Alan Chodos is a kind of advocacy rather new to APS. Fortunately we have excellent means for coordinating APS advocacy and outreach work in the Physics Policy Committee (PPC). I have asked PPC to oversee this outreach and advocacy program. 

Another major portion of our work is the various meetings we sponsor. A committee on the April Meeting under Chris Quigg has thought out ways of giving that meeting additional focus by adding a topical component, the topic varying from year to year. Integrated over different years and different topics, the impact of the meeting will be broader than before. This year we shall begin to put their recommendations into practice. Next, the Bulletin of the APS serves all meetings. It is in the process of a major revision that will make it more accessible in our electronic and web-based age. This year the APS will decide just how this will be done. Lastly, the March Meeting is always a major challenge. It is our largest and most complex meeting. Last year it grew to more than 7000 attendees. We have to run hard just to keep it going on an even keel. The biggest and most immediate challenges involve the behind-the-scenes support system for that meeting. I believe that we must develop better electronic support for the meeting and devote more staff time to pre-meeting support.

All the responses I have mentioned cost money. I expect to see the Treasurer keep on top of the whole process, seeing that our additional expenditures match the needs involved, coordinating the work in the different APS offices (particularly on the computer and web side), and making sure that the expenditures do not exceed the available funds.

Q: What can APS do better for its members?

A: We run excellent meetings, which are very well attended. We run not only the big meetings in March and April, but also smaller meetings for the units and smaller groups. The journals are among the best journals in the world and we're very proud of them. In addition, we have important programs in which we help colleges and universities around the United States train high school teachers. We have important activities in which we bring knowledge of physics to the general public. We work with all kinds of subgroups of the members. We work with new faculty; we work with chairs of departments. We provide opportunities for job fairs and other places where our members can go to find appropriate employment. We provide information about the employment situation. We do as much as we can, but we're always looking for new ways to serve the members. And we hope to find some in this period.

Our major activity will be focused on providing better classes of information to the public and to Congress.

At the moment we are particularly working to serve the community of physicists who work in industry. We have not directed enough particular attention to their special needs. We put a task force together to find out what those needs were, and now we're beginning to try to implement its recommendations. 

Q: Science is an international enterprise. Are there ways APS can better serve its international members and promote international collaboration and information exchange?

A: Most APS work, for example on our journals, equally well serves people in the US and people abroad. Even some specifically “international” work produces better exchange of scientific information, hence better science everywhere. Amy Flatten's plugging for better implementation of US visa policy falls into this category. Along these lines, we have been very active in expanding the possibilities for international exchange, both supporting American students learning abroad and helping people from everywhere to go to our meetings.

We have been working especially hard to bring the full benefits of our journals to people outside the US. We look forward to extending our range of activities for the developing world and for all of Africa.

Q: Why did you decide to run for APS President?

A: I was interested in seeing the APS concern itself more with issues of education and how the community related to science. I had been involved in informal education. I ran a program for developing materials for science in museums at the University of Chicago. I thought working with the APS was a natural outgrowth of that kind of program.

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