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Jerome Friedman, an Institute Professor of Physics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, assumed the APS presidency on January 1st, 1999. In the following interview, he outlines his prevailing concerns and priorities for the Society in the coming Centennial year.
Q: What primary goals do you hope to see the APS accomplish during its Centennial year?
A: This is a celebration of 100 years of the APS, and 100 years of enormous advances in physics. But we also want to use this event as an opportunity for extensive outreach to the general public, to policy makers and to students. The APS must do more to ensure the health of physics at a time when science in general is facing serious challenges. The message we want to communicate is that physics provides us with an understanding of how the world works and provides a context of how we see ourselves in relation to the universe. An equally important message is that the way we live is very much a product of the physics discoveries of the past and the technologies developed from them. But the Centennial is just the beginning. The physics community must keep addressing these issues, because the public's memory is quite short. We would like to find out what's successful in our Centennial outreach programs and build upon those successes.
Friedman Fact Sheet
Q: Why is public outreach still so important, and what role can the APS play in encouraging public support for science?
A: The nation has many diverse needs, and the scientific community must ensure that the public and the policy makers are aware of the importance of science. In doing this, it is very important that we represent the physics community in a unified fashion in order to be effective. Because of the diverse range of subfields represented within the Society, it is essential that the APS help unify the various disciplines to enable the physics community to speak with one voice. We have also joined with over 100 other scientific societies to become a unified advocate of better funding for science and technology in general.
In recent times the pursuit of science has been viewed by many as a luxury the nation can hardly afford in a period of budgetary and major social problems. There have been a growing number of people in government who have rejected the implicit assumption that the pursuit of scientific knowledge has social as well as intellectual value; and they have wanted guaranteed, short-term benefits as the justification for their support of science. Government leaders and the public must understand that science and applied science are investments that are critical for the future of the nation, and that the federal budget should provide adequate support for both basic and applied research. In the long run, science can prosper only if the public truly supports it.
Q: How can the APS achieve this same sense of unity within its own membership ranks?
A: In order to continue to make the Society more responsive to the needs of its members, we must make additional efforts to communicate with them to find out how to best serve their needs as well as those of the physics community at large. In identifying common needs and goals and by trying to fulfill them, the APS helps provide a sense of unity within its membership. We can certainly do better in making the APS a more inclusive society for both PhD and non-PhD physicists so that we have a Society which represents all physicists in the nation, with a total integration of the physics community. We also must better integrate the academic physics community with the industrial physics community. Enlisting greater participation of the industrial physics community is vital. National productivity depends on a broad scientific enterprise that is both capable of creating the foundations for new technologies and developing them.
Q: It is generally agreed that scientifically trained employees are critical for tomorrow's workforce, yet the U.S. educational system has failed to provide many young people with the scientific literacy required to succeed in a technological society. How is the APS addressing this issue?
A: Although we have made great strides in educational outreach, we must continue to strengthen our educational program. In addition to a trained workforce, we need to have a scientifically literate public in our democracy, in which there are many political issues that have scientific and technological components. The APS can play a role in making sure that the public gets the educational background in science that they need in order to effectively participate in such decision-making. We should extend our existing efforts to inform the public about such issues and also increase our associations with science teachers to help them devise effective curricula to train a future scientifically literate public.
Q: What do you see as essential to attracting more students to the field of physics, based upon your personal experience?
A: I was an art student in high school and was planning on making art my career, having been awarded a scholarship to the Museum School of the Art Institute of Chicago. But during my senior year in high school, I picked up a book on relativity and was fascinated. I really couldn't understand it, but I realized that it was something I wanted to understand. I became very curious about the physical world as a result.
If we want to attract students into science, we have to relate it to the world in which they live and whet their sense of awe and curiosity. They have to be told not only what we know about science, but also what we don't know and what some of the outstanding questions are. People go into science because they are extremely interested in understanding nature. So if an educational system wants to attract students into science, it must give them a sense of the wonders of nature quite early.
Q: National programs in educational outreach and curriculum reform abound, and yet science and math scores continue to plummet. Do you think local grassroots efforts would be more effective in achieving significant improvements?
A: The national efforts establish a necessary framework. But it is true that we must interact locally with teachers and education administrations to really accomplish effective change. It's very difficult to effect changes from the top that penetrate down through the entire system. The local outreach efforts of APS Education Director Ramon Lopez have been extremely effective. We should continue in that direction and also encourage the participation of the APS membership. We should give them the support they need to get involved at the local level in interacting with teachers and also in such issues as developing state standards for science education. Many of these educational initiatives are state or local issues, but we can still provide a framework in which our members can participate in a meaningful way.
Q: As physics continues to become an increasingly global enterprise, what role do you see the Society playing in the international arena?
A: We have many members from outside the U.S., and most of the manuscript submissions to our journals are from foreign authors, so we are playing an important international role already. There are things we can do in the international arena but the APS should pick its goals carefully, focusing on issues in which we think we can be effective, such as human rights and open scientific communication. And we must continue to foster collaboration with physicists from other parts of the world, through IUPAP and interactions with other physical societies.
Q: As we stand poised on the brink of a new millennium, what do you envision for physics in the future, and the Society's role therein?
A: We have had 100 years of spectacular physics achievement, and we can envision comparable achievements for the future. There's no question that the intellectual questions to be answered are very deep and manifold. There will be major discoveries that we cannot anticipate as well as revolutionary new technologies, and much more multi disciplinary work. Physics in the 21st century will require an environment in which all of its various manifestations can flourish. The APS can continue to play an important role in fostering such an environment by informing members of government and the general public of the intellectual and practical benefits of science.
My personal vision is an APS that enhances the ability of physicists to do their work and contribute to society, and also that plays a role in establishing educational levels of excellence. I would like us to be seen as an organization that looks outward as well as inward.
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