APS News

New President Stresses Research Funding,  International Engagement as Key Concerns

Barish web

New APS President Barry Barish

Barry Barish, Linde Professor of Physics Emeritus at Caltech, assumed the APS presidency on January 1st 2011. In the following interview with APS News, he discusses his priorities for the Society during his presidential year.

Q: What do you see as the most pressing issues facing the physics community right now?
Research funding! This is always near the top of the list, but the economic downturn and the election of a new Congress with a major shift in makeup make this issue even more critical than usual. Probably the most urgent issue is for constituent scientists to make contact with the new members of Congress to talk to them about how valuable basic science is to the future of the country. Leadership in science, especially through innovation, helps the economy, makes jobs and creates long term benefits to our way of life.  

Q: What will be your main focus during your presidential year? What approach will you take towards achieving these goals?
There are many duties for the president, who is the “face” of the APS and many issues that arise will require my time and energy.  I have observed how much of the time and energy of my two very capable predecessors have gone to fulfilling such unscheduled duties. Nevertheless, I plan to give special emphasis to several areas during the coming year: 
  1. The construction of the addition to the APS Ridge facility. This addition is badly needed and is a result of our own success, resulting in continued and steady growth of our journals. We have a very attractive building design to augment the present facility and we are hopeful that we will receive final building approvals soon. Working with our architects, our consultants and our contractor, we should begin the actual building in the coming months.
     
  2. Evolving the APS to better fill the needs of our diverse membership. The first and most obvious need is to recognize the fact that our membership has a growing and large international component. We recently expanded the number of APS International Councilors in recognition of this fact, but we also need to develop international representation on our committees, make our scientific meetings more accessible through modern communication techniques, and make sure our journals, which have such a large number of submissions from outside the US, are fully responsive to the make-up of those publishing and reading our articles around the world.
     
  3. The other big issue involving publishing is the movement toward “open access.” We must become pro-active in developing an open access concept for APS journals, and one that has a viable and sustainable business model.

Q: How well do you think the society is serving its members? Are there any areas where you think APS programs could be enhanced?
I haven’t heard complaints that there are large areas of our membership that are underserved, but in addition to adapting to our growing foreign membership, we underserve our younger members, both students and young researchers. The membership of the APS has a large component of students and young researchers, yet they are not well represented in our policy committees, at our meetings, etc. I would like to see how we can both facilitate better representation in these society activities and we should try to understand and respond to whatever issues there are for this important component of our membership. 

Q: What do you see as the Society’s role in public policy?
The APS can and does play important roles in studies of policy issues that involve physics and related technologies. We play an important role in influencing policy decisions on such issues.  It is important to realize that our government has few elected scientists or technically knowledgeable members. Therefore, it is incumbent on the science community to help inform the government on policy issues that involve science and technology. Our PPC and POPA committees, and more generally our Washington DC office, play important roles in this area.  I am interested in understanding how we might or should evolve the mission of the Washington Office, both because of the expertise we have to offer, coupled with the needs for having an informed government.

Q: What do you see as the Society’s role on international issues?
It is a fact that the APS membership has become more international, as the practice of doing science has become more international. As I said above, we must be responsive to this important and growing constituency in our membership, and beyond that, there are selective opportunities in the world where the APS can make a difference. Emerging countries are developing an increasingly educated scientific community, but have little tradition and few local organizations like the APS to provide the type of home for physicists that are provided by the APS. For that reason, we are beginning to look at possible partnerships in such countries that can be mutually beneficial and can help them develop their own equivalents of the APS. Another important area of concern relates to the globalization of science research, such as the large international collaborations needed to build and operate large facilities. The APS can help assure that such facilities can be carried out in ways that as much as possible are responsive to international needs of scientists to participate and are free of politics.

Q: In recent years, APS has been increasing its focus on education and outreach. What do you think of these efforts and how will you guide them?
We have a very active and effective education outreach program. The opportunities are much greater than what we can do, however, with our small staff and effort, so we must make sure we choose areas with the largest impact. We are active in efforts that educate the public, and this can have a large payoff. We are also making efforts toward broadening the diversity of our discipline and more generally in improving physics teaching. I am enthusiastic about these efforts and hope that I can help us focus on efforts where they will make a difference.  

Q: How will you guide APS through the current difficult economic times?
APS finances are stable. We are a non-profit and the services we provide are matched to our income, and are monitored carefully by the treasurer with advice from our budget and finance committees. Our reserves have largely recovered from the losses during the economic downturn. The biggest uncertainty is the future support of our journals. University libraries are under growing financial pressure, and publishing is becoming more electronic and open access. It will be a challenge to maintain our high-quality journals and respond to these changes.

Beyond the APS, there are a larger number of financial issues facing science and science funding. I believe the role of the APS in this area is to help enable our membership to educate our government officials and funding agencies of the value and importance of science and support for physics research in particular.

Q: How did you become interested in physics?
As a young child, I had two distinguishing passions, first an early love of mathematics and second, an intense curiosity to understand the world around me. Little did I know that physics represented a wonderful merger of these two passions, with mathematics being the crucial underlying tool to understand the physical phenomena that interested me so much. Eventually, I put that together and the rest is history!

Q: What have been some of your career highlights?
I have had the fortune to have been involved in a series of forefront fundamental physics experiments in particle physics and gravitation. Being able to learn about the physical world through ambitious forefront experiments from the idea stage, to a concept for addressing the questions, to an experimental design, and finally to an actual experimental device leading to new science has been and remains the highlight for me. I have had the good fortune to have gone through this process several times on forefront physics experiments.

Q: Why did you choose to run for the APS presidential line?
I was nominated and asked to run for office. I had never thought about it before and despite my initial reluctance, due to having many other commitments, I decided to run because I thought I could make a difference (in a positive way). I hope I am right!


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