APS News


On the Responsibilities of APS

By Leo Kadanoff

Editor’s Note: In early August, APS President Leo Kadanoff wrote to all APS members expressing some thoughts on the responsibilities of APS in a number of areas. For those who missed this message, or who would like to see it again, we reproduce it below.

As a tax exempt organization, APS has a legal responsibility to serve the public welfare. We fulfill this obligation in five main ways: journals, meetings, informing the government, informing the public, and in helping education. The senior leadership of APS is in reasonable agreement on the first four; we have some disagreement about the last. I go in the order named.

1. Journals: We publish the Physical Review family of journals, including Reviews of Modern Physics and Physical Review Letters. Our per-word prices are very low; our impact upon professionals is very high. In addition, we maintain all the back issues and make them available online.

2. Meetings: We conduct a diverse set of professional meetings. Our largest meeting has reached 7,000 registrants.

3. Informing the government: Our Washington office informs public officials about APS positions on a variety of public issues, including and especially funding for science. The office acts under the guidance of Council and committees of experts.

4. Informing the public: APS provides information for various different “publics”–our members, industrial scientists, chairs of physics departments, teachers, young students, ....The last two activities have been materially increased in response to the National Academy of Sciences report “Rising above the Gathering Storm”. This report asks for increased governmental spending upon research and education aimed at the physical sciences and mathematics.

The goals of this report have been incorporated in the policies and planning of both parties, congress, and the executive branch.

5. Education: The Gathering Storm report’s emphasis upon education reflects a broadly felt worry that our educational system is not up to US needs for a knowledgeable workforce and citizenry.

APS has long contributed to improving education. We have outreach activities aimed at schoolchildren, including successful websites and contests. Our meetings include workshops for teachers. Together with the American Institute of Physics and the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT), we oversee and aid two programs, PhysTEC and PTEC, aimed at improving and promoting the education of future teachers of physics and physical science. APS’s flagship program,  PhysTEC, is supported by the National Science Foundation, private donors, and ourselves. We oversee teacher training at ten universities  and colleges, each based upon a cooperation between its physics department and its school of education. In each case, an experienced teacher helps bring in the real world.

We have reached a crossroad in planning future educational programs for APS’s PhysTEC, our flagship program, is set to diminish by 60% as NSF support runs out next year. On the plus side, we have hired a new full-time person to work on education. Working jointly with AAPT, we have in planning an important new program aimed at doubling the number of physics majors, while guiding these new majors toward teaching and a wide variety of other occupational goals. However, for the next year, only 5% of the present education spending has been allocated for new education programs.

There is considerable discussion within APS leadership about whether education should be a core APS activity. One side of the discussion points out that APS has traditionally focused upon research while AAPT has teaching as its central concern. Further, US education is a huge problem and APS can hardly make a dent in any part of it.

On the other side, some of us argue that this is the time to make use of promised increased governmental investment in both science and education. In this view, it is APS’s responsibility to respond by bringing into being new and expanded programs aimed at improving science education. This ongoing discussion is likely to focus upon the practical question of whether we shall support educational programs with our own resources or rely upon (and wait for) funding from government and private donors.

In parallel, physics departments all across the US are likely to have discussions about their own educational missions. These discussions might focus upon increased numbers of physics majors, new teaching goals, new teaching methods, as well as broader and more flexible curricula. They may also be aimed at reaching out to students interested in teaching careers and perhaps students whose main aims are knowledge and good citizenship.

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.

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