Volume 25, Number 4 October 1996


The letters are dedicated to free expression on societal topics of interest to the physics community. As a forum for all physicists we welcome all views, but of course the Forum on Physics and Society does not necessarily endorse any particular view found in these pages. Readers are most heartily invited to respond to letters, comments, or others items in Physics & Society. Letters should not be longer than 500 words.

Research versus Teaching

Letters being scarce this issue, there is space available for the new editor of Physics and Society to reflect upon themes which he drew from two conferences he has attended this summer, both strongly related to our Forum's core of "physics and society". The first was the Ethical Issues in Physics Workshop at Eastern Michigan University, July 19-20. The second event was the International Conference on Undergraduate Education at University of Maryland (UMD), July 30-August 3. Sponsored by a major research university and the research "establishment" (APS) as well as by the teaching "establishment" (AAPT), and attended accordingly, the second conference focused upon the need and the methods for improving undergraduate education.

Most of the Workshop participants explicitly, and many of the Conference attendees implicitly, recognized the ethical dilemma of taking money for teaching while concentrating upon our research desires. They are beginning to see that the American public is not convinced that we physics faculty - especially those at the research universities - are at all interested in undergraduate education, especially for future citizen non-scientists. We all are beginning to understand that the taxpayer will soon tire of funding educational institutions which fail to educate well. For example, the numerous current attacks on academic tenure are one manifestation of this growing discontent. There is an implicit understanding, both among ourselves and in the general public, that there may be a contradiction between research and effective teaching. This potential contradiction was made explicit at the ethics workshop: there is an ethical problem in securing funds for one task and using them for other activities. We all recognize that both teaching and research are important: you can't succeed at one while completely ignoring the other; besides, neither the public nor our profession will allow us to do so. However, time, energy, resources, and awards are in short supply at any institution; in the competition for them between research and teaching, teaching often receives short shrift.

It is clear that some of the institutions firmly ensconced at the pinnacle of the research world (e.g., UMD) place major resources at the disposal of their teaching endeavors; the results often show it. For example, UMD has state-of-the-art lecture halls and demonstration facilities, spends considerable effort at exploring modern alternatives/complements to lecturing, and extends its superb physics demonstration program out into the community state-wide. How can this commitment and effective teaching endeavor be extended to the larger numbers of universities now climbing the research hierarchy? This is where most of our undergraduate future citizens "live", in institutions chasing the ghost of research prestige and dollars while often ignoring the realities of student and societal needs and discontents.

At a time of shrinking budgets and increasing call upon them, it is appropriate to ask whether we should be making it harder or easier for the newer research universities to get research grants. Should we couple the granting of research grants with evidence of teaching performance (or, more importantly, student learning)? In hiring and rewarding young faculty, should more coupling be demanded between research activity and teaching/learning performance? If such couplings are desirable, how are we to dispassionately evaluate the latter so as to continue and extend our scientific tradition of making grants based upon excellence rather than "pull"? I have no immediate answers but know that conditions will no longer allow us the luxury of avoiding the questions. I welcome comments and an exchange of views on this subject from our readers.

Al Saperstein

A Murderous Relation Between Fellow Professionals?

In response to the tragic murder of three engineering professors by a graduate student at San Diego State University, the editor of this newsletter invites public comment on the professional and power relationships that may have contributed to this shattering event. Aspects of this case that are potential subjects for comment include, but are not limited to:

* Power relationships between professors and graduate students
* Power relationships between professors and post docs
* New paradigms for professor/assistant relations
* Effects of such violence on public perception of scientists
* Relationship to ethics statements by scientific societies

We enthusiastically solicit your comments on this event and other similar violent events which have struck our profession in recent years. In the interests of completeness and openness, we will respect requests for anonymity.

Jeffrey J Marque