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Equations. Lasers. Detectors. Particle colliders. Circuits. Diagrams. Computer code. Whether you’re a theorist or an experimentalist, an astrophysicist or a condensed matter physicist, these are just some of the tools you work with when you do physics. They are at the heart of what it means to be a physicist — to investigate the world around you by using your preferred tools to, for example, construct a new theory for an unknown process, create a new detector for precise measurements, or make a highly detailed simulation.
But, what else do we need to do physics? We need education to learn physics knowledge, infrastructure to perform experiments and make theories, funding in order to make it our livelihood, and laws and regulations that take into account the needs of physicists and scientists in general. How can we help to ensure that we have access to everything that we need to do physics? We have to be vocal about our needs. As much as we want to be self-reliant and operate independently of everyone else, we can’t.
Physics doesn’t exist outside of society, but instead within it. We have to acknowledge that we compete with many other groups for attention. It’s a reality, for example, that there is only so much money to go around. Physics — and science, more broadly — is just one of many priorities for the country. Of course we believe it is a high priority, but what about elected officials? Those who write rules, regulations, and policy? Those who decide where the money goes? Do they believe that science is a priority?
There are a small number of Senators and Representatives that have a direct and personal interest in science. Rep. Bill Foster (IL) is one of them. He is the only PhD physicist in Congress — one out of 535. There also is one chemist, one microbiologist, and eight engineers. While others are science allies, there are many who have other priorities and interests than physics. Some even dismiss science.
So, what can we do? We must make our voices heard and speak up for our needs. Silence won’t help us. Instead, we need to be a signal above the noise of all the competing interests.
How can you help the practice of physics thrive while still being an active physicist?
Senators and Representatives do listen. Professional scientific societies and coalitions of societies are often asked for their input, which can include contributing language for legislation. For example, APS successfully contributed wording to the Every Student Succeeds Act to allow teacher preparation academies like PhysTEC and UTeach to receive funds under its Title II. Individual physicists have developed relationships with congressional offices and have helped provide important information. One such relationship helped recently with issues concerning fair treatment of women in science.
You don’t have to do it on your own — the APS Office of Public Affairs (OPA) works hard to make sure that the government realizes the needs of the physics community and can help you to get involved. For example, you can participate in APS-led advocacy campaigns online, over the phone, or in person in your state or in Washington, DC, to take those actions listed above. The issues addressed by OPA depend on current events and the concerns of APS members. Current advocacy efforts for OPA include the federal research budget, open access, climate change, helium supply, e-cycling, and high school physics teacher recruitment and preparation.
Recently I was struck by a physicist’s reaction to being asked to participate in an advocacy campaign for science funding. The physicist wondered, “Isn’t it a bit self-serving?” Yes, it is, but that’s at the heart of the matter. If you, as a member of the physics community, don’t look out for your needs and the needs of your fellow and future physicists, then who will? You can share your personal perspective and be part of the unified voice to address the priorities of the physics community. Speak up and help physics thrive.
Government Relations Specialist, APS
These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.