APS News

CEO Robert Brown Discusses Plans for American Institute of Physics

By Emily Conover

Robert Brown

Robert Brown

The American Institute of Physics (AIP) announced the selection of its new chief executive officer (CEO), Robert Brown, in May. And according to Brown, change will soon be coming to the 80-year-old federation of scientific societies. He has plans to revamp the organization — which unites 10 different membership societies, including APS — by improving the benefits it provides, like Physics Today magazine, and by boosting the AIP presence on digital platforms and social media. Brown adds that with his background in private-sector physics he can help the organization better serve scientists who work outside of academia.

“I’ve arrived to find a really vibrant and high-quality set of people here,” says Brown.” To a large extent, people, I think, are willing and ready and looking for change and improvement in the future, so that’s what I’m going to be trying to bring.”

Brown is prepared to implement these changes, he says, thanks to diverse experience throughout his career. An applied physicist focusing on optics and photonics, Brown has worked in government labs, in academia, and in the private sector, from small startups to the largest international companies, as well as in scientific publishing.

Brown’s interest in optics is a long-term love affair. The subject piqued his interest at a young age, he says, when he began performing some simple experiments and “just realizing that there’s some really interesting questions to be asked and some fascination in playing with light.”

Brown spent his early career at the Royal Radar Establishment, a military research center in Malvern, England, where he worked in photonics, quantum optics, and in photon-correlation systems. He then became head of optoelectronics research and general manager at Sharp Laboratories of Europe, creating a new lab from the ground up. That was followed by a stint as editorial director for the Institute of Physics (IOP) in the U.K., where he was responsible for the IOP’s peer-reviewed journals, before heading to Northern Ireland to become director of nanotechnology and professor at Queen’s University Belfast. After moving to the U.S. about ten years ago, Brown became chief technology officer of Ostendo Technologies, and later worked at Rockwell Collins’ Advanced Technology Center. “This position as chief executive of AIP is a position where I’m challenged to use everything that I’ve learned in all those different background places in the past,” Brown says. “So in a way the last 40 years has been a training course.”

Besides APS, AIP member societies also include the American Astronomical Society, the Acoustical Society of America, and the American Association of Physics Teachers. Simultaneously supporting the 10 member societies, which vary widely in their needs, is a challenge, Brown says. Some of AIP’s member societies have a few thousand members, and others, like APS, have tens of thousands.

Brown wants to increase the number of membership societies that are a part of AIP, and attract different types of member societies. “We have to have more features and more functionality, we have to have a much wider range of offerings to make AIP a ‘must-belong-to’ member society federation,” Brown says.

And to enable AIP to better support APS in particular, Brown wants to deepen the relationship between the two organizations. “There are real opportunities to work together to build a better future.”

Brown also hopes to push AIP to take advantage of digital platforms and social media to engage with scientists in the U.S. and around the world. “We have this wonderful technology available to us today where we can instantly be communicating with anybody on the planet in any country, and at the moment we’re not doing that perhaps anything like as well as we could do,” Brown says.

Brown will also work on increasing AIP’s focus on applied and engineering physics, and on the corporate physics community. “The reason is, frankly, corporate physics in its entirety globally is much bigger than academic physics,” Brown says. “In a way, to be honest, I feel the applied and engineering physics side is underrepresented at the present time.”

Although AIP is also known for its suite of journals, those are published by AIP Publishing (AIPP), a wholly owned subsidiary of AIP, created after a reorganization which took place in 2013. “AIP Publishing is a company that’s really worked out what it is and how it’s going to operate,” says Brown, who served as treasurer of AIPP before becoming CEO of AIP. “They are really tightly focused on their publishing activities. They’ve got plenty of ideas for the future — development of new journals, development of delivery platforms, and suchlike.”

Brown highlighted Physics Today as perhaps the organization’s most important perk for member societies. The magazine has a circulation of over 120,000 in the 10 member societies. “It is the principal membership benefit for many of our member societies,” Brown says. “What we’re trying to do now is see what else we can be doing with that magazine.”

The magazine will soon be getting a new editor-in-chief, as current editor Stephen Benka will be retiring. The choice of the new editor will fall to Brown. “I’ve got to get somebody who’s right, not just for the existing Physics Today, but the way that we imagine it could be in the future,” Brown says.

Brown’s enthusiasm for the job thus far is clear: “I’m loving it, I really am,” he says. “The excitement for me in every position that I take, not just at AIP, is the range of challenges, the diversity of the challenges. … How do we make it really work efficiently and effectively and really well for everybody?”

Note: As this issue went to press, Brown announced several changes to AIP’s structure.

Related Information

Gray Arrow American Institute of Physics Announces Reorganization - APS News Update, September 2015

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