Volume 24, Number 1 January 1995
It's been six years now since I received a Ph.D. in physics. In those days, it wasn't trivial to get a job--there were 10 other applicants for the research faculty job I got--but it was doable. Now I hear there are hundreds of applicants for each academic physics job. This and the cancellation of the SSC makes me worry that my Ph.D. in experimental high energy physics has lost value on the labor market.
While I firmly believe that a Ph.D. in physics offers something more than specialized training for an academic career in that sub-field, breaking out of specialization requires extra work. But most of those with a degree in my field will have to do so. AIP statistics show that even before the SSC was cancelled, 75% of Ph.D.s in particle physics left that field after doing postdoctoral work.
I began the process of leaving high energy physics by applying for an American Physical Society Congressional Science Fellowship. I had to be able to explain how my physics Ph.D. experience was relevant to something which seemingly was completely different. But I won the fellowship as a physicist judged by physicists. My experience searching for a job at the end of the fellowship inspired me to do some creative thinking about how physics research experience is applicable outside physics. Now, as a member of the Forum on Physics and Society's Executive Committee, I find this is a topic of great general interest to new physics Ph.Ds.
As a Fellow in the office of Senator Pete V. Domenici, where my duties and responsibilities were like those of most of his other aides, I gained a new perspective on the relative importance of my various skills. Probably the most important physics skill I used during the fellowship was asking questions. This seems to be a primary activity for members of Congress. They ask questions in hearings--for the record, in letters, and in briefings. But while it was an advantage to have a physicist's confidence in asking questions, I had to learn that a normal style of questioning for a physicist may appear rude and threatening for a Congressional staffer.
Another skill I used was being sensitive to politics. That is politics with a small "p" as in turf battles and office politics. This is far more important in Congressional offices that big P (Democrat and Republican) politics. As someone who had been part of experimental high energy physics groups, I already understood the concepts of "turf" and rivalry between groups. A key skill was learning to represent someone else. When a Congressional aide expresses an opinion it is taken to be the opinion of his or her boss. I had to be careful not to express my own opinion (if my boss's was unknown or different). As a physicist from a large collaboration I may have had a similar feeling at a conference right before we were to announce a result. But such instances were rare and even then I would have been representing the group of which I was a member, not my boss.
The most important skill I had to develop was to be a translator between my boss and scientists. This was especially difficult when I had to face the extremely politicized (for a scientific topic) issue of global climate change. I learned from this experience that policy makers use and trust information differently than physicists. Senator Domenici was named to the official delegations which were to observe the United Nations negotiations for a Framework Convention on Climate Change and the negotiations for the "Earth Summit". He asked me to prepare him a briefing book on global warming. My first attempt, full of tables, charts and diagrams, was an utter failure. A fellow staffer advised me to first give him my judgement of the issue and recommendation for action, then write only about one or two of the "facts" which were most important to me, and finally, to quote from experts to whom I had spoken in person. This last task was made much easier by Senator Gore. As the chair of both delegations he held briefings almost weekly at which expert scientists, such as Bob Watson from NASA, and high-level people, such as the head of the Earth Summit and the Science Advisor to the President of Brazil (who was also Brazil's Environment Minister), briefed the delegations. I usually attended on Domenici's behalf. This approach worked much better. In the end I was able to give the Senator what I thought was a reasonably objective consensus view of global warming, but he listened because I believed in it.
From this experience I decided that my physics training had actually hampered my communication with the Senator. Being a physicist accustomed to purely technical arguments, I at first thought that his "gut" approach was irrational and uninformed. Policymakers, however, do have a structured way of obtaining and prioritizing information--it is based not on any disciplinary training (Senators who deal with many broad issues are far too busy to develop much expertise), but rather their judgement of people, and who they know and where they come from. Physicists might tend to listen more to a Nobel prize winner, but most would not admit it or even be particularly aware of it. Since those aides and Congressional advisors I met during my fellowship seemed extremely intelligent and knowledgeable, their method works better than many scientists would expect.
So how does this all tie back into the job situation for physicists? First, as a practical matter, having been a Congressional Fellow is another "union card" on top of my Ph.D. But more importantly, I learned to adapt physics experience and develop skills useful for providing technical information to any policymaker. Maybe it is because I now have kids and worry about the world they will inherit, but after my fellowship I wanted a career that involved using science in areas more immediately applicable to the tremendous health, economic, energy and environmental needs of this country and this planet.
The Congressional Science Fellowship is important because it recognizes, supports and rewards scientists whose skill is in translating to policymakers. I'm not saying everyone should get into policy, but there are some major problems looming which will need all of us--scientists, engineers, policymakers, and those affected by the problems--to work together. We will need more translators.
[The following article is the second installment of a paper presented at the Rio Followup Conference on Science Education in Global Change, held in Eger, Hungary, 22-27 August 1994. It will be published in the Proceedings of that conference, and is reprinted here by permission. The first installment appeared in the October 1994 issue, and the third and last installment will appear in a later issue.] Do include ozone depletion and global warming in your science courses. They are great science teaching vehicles, they are important issues, and they are a fine example of something called the "precautionary principle."
Begin with ozone depletion. By treating it historically, bring out its social dimensions while still focusing on the fascinating science. The societal history of this issue is in a sense finished: Because of the Ozone Treaty, humankind has done nearly all the damage it is going to do to the ozone layer. The treaty is a revolutionary victory for human rationality, representing responsible action taken on the basis of the scientific investigation of a global environmental issue.
And yet--and yet--we have waited too long: The ozone layer is wounded and will not soon recover. During the recovery, humankind may suffer millions of excess skin cancers and hundreds of thousands of excess cancer deaths, not to mention damage to other natural systems such as the micro-organisms that stand at the base of the Antarctic food chain.
But we acted so well on the Ozone Treaty! How can we have gone so wrong? The answer is that we were not sufficiently cautious in the early days of chlorofluorocarbons, the days when air-conditioning made boom-towns out of places like Houston and Dallas and facilitated our modern cathedrals--the shopping malls. While we were all out shopping, the CFCs were slipping up to the stratosphere, and the ozone layer sprang a grim surprise.
Perhaps, in the future, we will heed:
5. The precautionary principle: Be conservative. Technologies of uncertain risk should be presumed harmful until proven otherwise, in order for society to avoid being surprised.
It's a simple and powerful idea, and it could save us new calamities: Better to be safe than sorry. Better to purchase insurance, even though it might never be needed, than to risk burning your house down. Most of us follow this principle in our personal lives, but we have not yet begun to apply it globally.
Now you are ready to present, to your students, the global warming problem. Again, the science is fascinating. Unlike ozone depletion, global warming is still in its infancy. Because it contains many scientific and societal uncertainties, the applicable principle is: Purchase the insurance.
Don't be overly negative. The good news is that the disasters are avoidable if we get busy, that the solutions involve individual actions that are not necessarily difficult, and that the wise application of technology can provide a route to worldwide prosperity. The path to this bright future has two parts: First, we must begin basing our actions on the world as we actually observe it rather than as we imagine it. And second, before acting, we must think hard about that observed world and the consequences of our actions.
In other words, we must follow something approximating the scientific method. This is surely an idea that we should be teaching to all our students:
6. Because careful observation coupled to creative intellect can guide us toward a prosperous future, scientific methodology must be part of everybody's education.
For example, behold the automobile. It provides great physics examples, and even greater societal examples. We do love our cars. Our love of mobility surely has biological roots. Yet the automobile is behind the pollution and congestion that strangle our cities, behind the oil resource issues that bedevil our foreign policy, and behind the deaths of hundreds of thousands per year by accidents and by pollution. That data is part of the real world of the automobile, yet the public hardly notices.
Nearly every energy analyst who has studied this problem has recommended incentives for alternative transportation, and disincentives (such as high gasoline taxes) for automobiles. This is the solution that scientific methodology suggests. Getting out of our cars would go a long way toward alleviating global warming and other problems. It is not terribly difficult, and some would even say that it would heighten the quality of our lives, to get out of our cars and find healthier alternatives. The problem lies in getting large numbers of people to accept this easy and even pleasant solution. In the US at least, old customs of mobility and freedom prevail, and the rational and easy solution is not taken. The rational solution is, I repeat, easy and even pleasant. The difficulty lies in motivating large numbers of people to change their automobile habits, habits that are actually difficult and expensive and even unpleasant (e.g. being stalled in traffic or searching for a parking space), and follow the rational solution. Therein lies our dilemma.
Will exposure of our citizens to the observations, data, hypotheses, conclusions, predictions, theories, open-mindedness, rationality, and amazing successes of science help to resolve such social issues? --In a word: yes.
Modern culture came to us on the wings of science, and if its problems are to be solved at all, they will be solved by the methods of science. Now, science is rather demanding. It asks us to give up our age-old intuitions, and accept odd new principles such as "a body that is subject to no external influences will move with constant speed in a straight line." Who ever heard of such a thing? It's a very strange idea, which is why science historian Herbert Butterfield describes the law of inertia as the greatest intellectual breakthrough in history. The law of inertia is non-intuitive, in just the way that a clear-headed societal analysis of the automobile is non-intuitive. In both cases, I opt for rationality rather than intuition.