Reflections on the American Physical Society in 2002

By George Trilling

George TrillingNear the end of last year, I wrote letters to some of my physicist colleagues, not presently APS members, urging them, as convincingly as I could, to join our Society. I tried to explain the reasons, aside from receiving Physics Today, as to why our organization was worth their support, even at the cost of a $100 membership fee. I did so by describing many of the important APS activities and issues, with special emphasis on the last year (2001). I share some of these here with a wider group.

Perhaps first and foremost, the APS is in the business of publishing world-class scientific journals. A recent comment from the Publication Oversight Committee describes well the APS effort: "The electronic revolution means that we are traveling into uncharted waters, and we struggle with how best to steer the APS Publishing Ship. Thanks to superior foresight and management, the APS journals are doing fantastically well, but we always want to improve and do things better."

The year 2001 saw major progress in the APS publications enterprise: Physical Review On-Line Archive (PROLA) completed all the way back to the PR beginnings in 1893; establishment of a PROLA mirror site at Cornell University; beautiful color images for PRL covers; the continuing success of Physical Review Focus; the organization, in collaboration with the American Institute of Physics (AIP), of two new virtual journals on "Applications of Superconductivity" and "Quantum Information"; and progress toward the institution of a fully electronic editorial office.

Unfortunately the cost per subscription of our journals grows faster than inflation, for two reasons: each year, submissions increase by a few %, and nonmember (library) subscriptions drop a few %. The increase in yearly submissions is almost entirely associated with growing inputs from outside the U.S. which now amount to 70% of total submissions, equally distributed between Western Europe and the rest of the world. The development of creative charging models that keep this publishing enterprise financially sound, on terms both fair and affordable to libraries, is a continuing major challenge. Fortunately our Editor-in- Chief and our Treasurer, backed up by an extraordinarily dedicated staff, have proven to be true pioneers in this new world. They are hoping to achieve yet further economies by shifting to a fully electronic office environment while maintaining the daily routine of about 100 new submissions.

For the future, our publishing enterprise will face continuing challenges, raising questions over such issues as: i) the time scale on which print journals disappear, ii) the future of peer review, iii) future responsibility for archiving in a world of rapidly evolving technology, and iv) the overall impacts of new technologies. Moving to public affairs, The Society has a natural role, given the fact that many current public policy issues require sound scientific and technical input (as well as as political, economic and other inputs). Examples of such issues include energy production, the environment, missile defense, visa policy, homeland security etc.

I mention two examples of important APS activities related to public policy, started or completed in the last year. Both originated with the APS Panel on Public Affairs (POPA). The first is a report entitled "Nuclear Energy: Present Technology, Safety, and Future Research Directions: a Status Report" from a distinguished group of experts. It is posted on the POPA web site, and I invite you to study it. The second is the "APS Study of Boost-Phase Missile Defense " under way since early 2001 under the joint leadership of Dan Kleppner (MIT) and Fred Lamb (U. of Illinois). The Study Group of twelve outstanding engineers and physicists, who are volunteering a great deal of time and effort, will, in the next few months, submit a report based on fundamental science and engineering, and on unclassified information. This report, devoted solely to relevant scientific/technical issues, should have considerable impact.

Another aspect of the APS public affairs activity is motivated by the inadequacy of the federal funding levels for both physics research and the improvement of K-12 science education. There is continuing concern about balance in research support: of the total federal basic and applied research funding proposed for FY2003, the NIH gets about 50%, whereas DOE receives 10% and NSF 7%. Over the last few years, while the NIH budget has doubled, NSF support has increased only modestly, and DOE, the largest federal supporter of physical science, has stagnated. The APS Office of Public Affairs (OPA) is working hard to encourage improved federal support of research in physical science and science education. At recent March and April meetings, an impressive computerized system has been deployed to make it easier for attendees to communicate with their members of Congress. OPA has also worked with congressional staff to help craft legislative language, and has organized effective congressional visits programs. It was my privilege to testify twice in 2001 before congressional committees, and others in the APS leadership also testified last year, and will do so again this year.

As mentioned above, funding for the DOE Office of Science programs has at best remained flat for many years, even though the national labs and their sophisticated user facilities have helped produce world-class science. To help address this situation, APS Physics Policy Committee Chair Richardson and APS President Langer convened, in the fall of 2000, a distinguished panel to consider organizational ways of giving the DOE Office of Science more visibility and better recognition of its leadership role in the nation's scientific enterprise. One of its proposals was to create within DOE a new high-level position of "Under Secretary for Science and Energy Research and Science Advisor to the Secretary". This idea has already received some support on the Hill, and has a chance of being implemented in the not too distant future. I believe that it could be an important step forward.

Science is of course universal, and the advancement and dissemination of the knowledge of physics are vigorously pursued all over the world. As physics facilities, such as particle accelerators and detectors, neutron sources, space vehicles etc. become increasingly costly, international collaboration can make them more affordable. The APS is playing an active role in promoting and facilitating international efforts. In 2001, it helped organize the Inter-American Workshop on the Use of Synchrotron Radiation for Research and Symposium on Nanosecond Technologies in Brazil. There was a Joint Meeting of the APS Division of Nuclear Physics and the nuclear physicists from the Japanese Physical Society in Maui in October 2001. The Summer saw a DPF/DPB Workshop on future directions in Particle Physics, held in Snowmass and attended by particle and accelerator physicists from across the globe. Their recommendation of a Linear Electron-Positron Collider as the next major particle accelerator facility is only conceivable as a large international collaborative effort.

A variety of security concerns have, in recent times, led to increased difficulties and delays in the granting of U.S. visas, for both short-term attendees of scientific conferences and long-term visitors coming to collaborate in U.S. research programs. Foreign visitors working in the U.S. and traveling to meetings abroad have found themselves stranded, with their returns to the U.S. long delayed. The APS Office of International Affairs has been active both in assisting with individual visa problems, and in interacting with the State Department to promote the possible formulation of new visa rules that do not inhibit long-term visits.

There are numerous other areas of activity, but I am running out of space. I conclude by noting with enthusiasm that physics research continues to yield exciting surprises...dark energy and dark matter, neutrino mass and oscillations, new superconducting materials, new manifestations of quantum phenomena etc. It underlies many of the technological developments crucial to the health of our economy and to our security, and provides tools that help advance other scientific enterprises including biology and medicine. The health of that research enterprise depends on increased federal funding support, especially for the DOE Office of Science and for the NSF, and also depends on continuing improvement of science education at all levels from kindergarten through university. With the strong leadership of its operating and elected officers, the efforts of its dedicated staff, and the active participation of a large membership, the American Physical Society will continue to play a major role in promoting all these directions.

George Trilling, Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, and Faculty Physicist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, was President of the APS in 2001. This article is adapted from his retiring Presidential Address, delivered at the APS April meeting.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette

June 2002 (Volume 11, Number 6)

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Articles in this Issue
2002 April Meeting Features New SNO Data, CPU Study
April Meeting Attendees Visit Ground Zero
April Meeting Photos
Mikulski, Walsh receive Public Service Awards
NSF Report Tracks Science Funding Patterns
Scientific Societies Foil Potential Journal Scam
CPU Study Issues Final Report
New SNO Data Resolves Solar Neutrino Problem
OPA Fellows Learn the Ropes on the Hill
Taking Hydrogen to the Extreme
Council Passes Statement on Defense Funding
The Back Page
Members in the Media
This Month in Physics History
Zero Gravity: The Lighter Side of Science
Inside the Beltway: A Washington Analysis