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APS, Physics: Aspirations and Goals

By Leo Kadanoff

Leo Kadanoff
Leo Kadanoff
In 2007, Bill Gates spoke to Congress about using science and technology to improve innovation and competitiveness in American industry: “In my view, our economic future is in peril unless we take three important steps: First, we must equip America’s students and workers with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in today’s knowledge economy. Second, we need to reform our immigration policies for highly skilled workers so that we can be sure our workforce includes the world’s most talented people. And third, we need to provide a foundation for future innovation by investing in new ideas and providing a framework for capturing their value.” This statement is part of a movement by leaders in industry and science, including our own American Physical Society (APS), to invigorate US physical sciences.

Here, I’ll talk about physics: its position at the top of the heap after World War II, its rapid decline during and after the Vietnam War, its efforts to rise again. At the moment, APS’s attempts to boost physics are based upon lobbying for increased governmental funding of research. At the end of this talk, I’ll suggest that APS increase its own effectiveness by making a substantially expanded parallel effort on improving education.   

Looking Back; Looking Down
At a recent University cocktail party, a colleague asked me about how I felt about physics’ decline in public prestige. This was to some extent a putdown. He is an economist. Then and now economists were to be found at the top of my university’s status tree. They had replaced physical scientists in the perches on the topmost limbs.

Looking down from the top is jolly good fun. In 1960, I took up a postdoc in Copenhagen. That in itself was exciting. Nobody in my family had crossed the ocean in a civilian role since my mother’s steerage passage in 1911. The Bolshoi Ballet came to town. As the highest cultural institution in the USSR they could only meet with ... us! So the often shy and awkward physicists came to dance with the ballerinas. Those graceful creatures moved under the watchful eyes of heavyset women who worked, no doubt, for the Soviet version of intelligence or security agencies. Promptly at 11:15 the watchers clapped their hands, the Bolshoi left. We were left behind, much impressed with our own social status.

Soon thereafter, as an assistant professor, I went to a scientific meeting in a very nice Italian town, Ravello, high above the Amalfi Drive. A movie company settled in our hotel. Like the Bolshoi the movie people thought that we could share their status at the top. They drew us into their circle, asking what we thought of the perpetual motion machine (first kind) that one of them (Ronald Colman) had invented. We were indeed pleased and flattered, most especially by their almost first-hand gossip about their social world, including things about the sex life of Bertrand Russell.  

Quite a while later, I attended that cocktail party in which my colleague jabbed at me with the fact that physics had fallen off its pedestal. “How did I feel about our no longer being in intellectual ‘high society’?”  “Just fine,” I said, “it gives me more time to work on the really worthwhile thing: physics” ( I’m not quite sure I really said that. Memory is often flattering.)   

A Golden (Or Maybe Silver) Age
Physics and physicists started the period after World War II with a great public reputation produced by the world-shattering work of Einstein, the inventors of quantum mechanics, and the developers of nuclear weapons. (Radar, codes, computers, and operations research counted too.) We helped invent new industries. We offered advice at the highest levels of government.

In this period, monetary support for physics and jobs for physicists came from a myriad of governmental labs and agencies, both civilian and military. Parallel support came from excellent industrial labs with major components of both basic and applied work. Widespread public enthusiasm for our work was kept going by the invention of the laser, maser, and transistor and later, in response to Sputnik.

But then things started falling apart.

Decline: Disaster After Disaster
Our mutually supportive arrangement with the military fell away when physicists did not fully support the Vietnam war. The river of military money became a trickle.

Scientific jobs in US industrial labs also started to disappear. Industrial labs often seem to have a roughly seven year lifetime of vibrant activity. They then shrink or close and are replaced by new labs. Only a few have a long life. This dynamic worked just fine in the US until, in recent years, the replacement labs in the physical sciences stopped coming. In parallel many firms moved facilities abroad or built them anew in places like Ireland or India or China. Why? Some firms perhaps were looking for a less expensive and better educated workforce. In addition, these facilities do serve as an advertisement for the firms in their growing markets. Overall, our industrial research showed a gradual decline over a long period, punctuated by the abrupt decline of Bell Labs, Xerox PARC, and Exxon’s central research facility. With the decline and flight of industrial research, more than half the financial base for US physics disappeared.

Military sponsors also fell away. I recently attended an Army Research Office (ARO) conference intended to celebrate 50 years of ARO’s accomplishments. They gloried in their past support for basic research, including the developments in atomic physics, by Dan Kleppner and others, which made possible the global positioning satellite system. They also pointed out that future accomplishments would be very different from past ones. No more basic research. Instead ARO wanted to support work on the immediate problems posed by the redesign of the army for much more intense firepower. They mentioned, for example, developing a better cloth for parachutes.  

High energy physics was struck by its own very significant disaster: the closure of the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) project in 1993. This Texas machine would have kept the center of particle physics in the US for a substantial time.

The World Is Flat; We Are Sliding Off
That’s ancient history. Let’s jump to more recent events. After a long dry period for the physical sciences, about three years ago industrial leaders including Norman Augustine, former head of Lockheed, and Craig R. Barrett, the chairman of Intel, began to lobby intensively for better federal support for the physical sciences. As I see it, this effort was in large measure a response to the flight of high tech facilities abroad. The flight is a scary symptom of US decline.

Many industrial and scientific leaders felt it was imperative to arrest this decline. With staffing in part drawn from the APS Washington office, these leaders produced a series of reports and meetings with public officials. The most influential report, “Rising above the Gathering Storm” advocated  (in its priority ordering)
1. better education in schools  
2.  financial support for useful research in physical sciences  
3.  support for higher education  
4.  more immigration of high tech workers  
5.  lower taxes on high tech in industry  

2007: A Good Year Foreseen
Last year, 2007, started out as a very good year for both the American Physical Society and American Physics. The previous year had brought broad support to the ideas of “Rising Above...” Early in 2007, authorization bills had been passed, which would, if converted into action, support both research and education as suggested in “Rising Above...”.These bills got support from the White House, both Houses of Congress, and both Democrats and Republicans. All that was needed was an appropriation which would convert the plans into reality. APS continued to press for our own main goal: better support of research.  

One might be able to see on the horizon, clouds, no larger than a man’s hand, which could mar this potentially fine picture. First cloud: Congressional talk about the previous two appropriation bills had promised great leaps in physical science funding. In both cases the leaps disappeared at the last moment. Second cloud: the push toward new research funding was built upon the premise that business creativity would arise from a fertile research establishment. A buzzing of business opinion, for example in The Economist magazine, put forward the contrary premise that the important factor in corporate innovation was the creative push of business managers. Third cloud: although the support for increasing research and education was very broad, it was also very shallow. The same businesses which were now pushing federal support of research had previously rejected supporting US research within its own organizations. What would happen when push came to shove?  

All through the year, APS’ lobbyists kept pushing government on the numbers in the various bills that were intended to support research. In this way, APS worked to ensure that physics got the full dose, or more, of the moneys which had been quasi-promised in the authorization process. APS kept its eye on the research money, only on that money. Well, push did come to shoving between White House and Congress. Toward the end of the appropriations process there was a $20 billion difference between congressional bills and presidential statements. The president threatened a veto over that $20 billion. The people in Congress, our supporters, and our critics agreed to a final bill half way between the President’s number and Congress’. In that compromise, almost all increases for physical sciences were eliminated.

Now we are in a tight spot. We were speaking out for doubling the research spending of three federal agencies: DOE, NSF, NIST. Much of the momentum of this process has been lost. In contrast, in the next months, the nation is planning to spend more than $400 billion over budget to make up for some errors of greedy moneylenders. As far as I can see, our more modest numbers have been drowned in that ocean of money.

Back to Basics
In my view, we have to go back to the beginning and make a new long-range plan. To do this we have to recognize that our industrial partners in “Rising above the Gathering Storm” and associated efforts are mostly concerned about workforce issues, and only secondarily worried by the relative decline in the US capacity for basic research. The workforce could be improved by better education. APS can improve the effectiveness of its advocacy and of its partnership with industry by making its goals equally education and research. If we argue and work for research, but not education, we will appear to be crass and selfish. The APS, its members, and physicists in general should, I believe, follow the mandate of the APS Council which tells us that:
A strong educational program in Science and Mathematics is crucial for our national   well-being. [...] Science literacy for all citizens is necessary to ensure full participation in the society of the future. (1983)

I would thus urge APS lobbyists and policy makers to spend as much time on educational  issues as upon research budgeting. APS concerns should include the entire spectrum of education: from pre-school programs to graduate training to science literacy for all. In particular, APS should take a much larger role in asking for better training of teachers.

Further, I would suggest that the richer of the physicists’ institutions–Stanford, Princeton, Chicago, etc.–and the richer of the associations of scientists–AIP, APS, AAAS, etc.–should devote a small percentage (perhaps 2% per year) of their savings and endowment to the enhancement of pre-college education. They can accomplish this by freeing the time of concerned staff members to lead and participate in educational programs, both nationwide and local.  In particular, they should take a much larger role in the training of teachers. A similar contribution might be expected from government labs and agencies containing scientists.   

One success might be particularly close at hand. APS, AAPT, and AIP could contribute to high school physics teaching by using their resources to double the size of their very successful PhysTEC and PTEC teacher training programs.   

I shall close with a comment by APS President Arthur Bienenstock. In his work in the (US) President’s Office of Science and Technology he had a major interest in educational issues. He said that this interest paid off not only in the improvement of education but also enabled his involvement in alliances that made him more effective on other issues. I advocate for APS use of precisely that synergy.

Copyright Leo Kadanoff (2008)

Leo Kadanoff is the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago. He served as APS President in 2007. This article is adapted from his retiring Presidential address, delivered at the APS April Meeting in St. Louis.

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