Saving Physics in America

Leo Kadanoff wrote an interesting article on physics aspirations and goals on the Back Page of the July 2008 issue of APS News. In this article, he raised the concern of a decline in US physics research. With the recent funding debacles of ILC and ITER and the financial crisis at Wall Street, there are some jitters among many physicists. Concurrently, America just witnessed China’s first space walk. China has already passed the US in at least one area of scientific research—namely high temperature superconductor physics.

In the past, US partially relied on the import of scientific talents from other countries to sustain its science and technology. As the retention rate of foreign scientists drops, the US physics work forcewill weaken unless a local supply of fresh blood is infused into the system. As Kadanoff has so keenly observed, better physics education will be a strategic component of a multi‑prong approach to arrest the decline of US physics.

Good teaching skill essentially consists of detailed preparation for lectures, speaking clearly to the students, paying attention to blackboard etiquette, answering students’ questions respectfully, and most importantly writing reasonable quizzes and exam questions. Students generally learn best from other students. We can certainly encourage students to work in groups to solve physics problems so that they have a natural setting for mutual‑teach. It is contrary to the old school methodology of requiring students to work independently.

Another idea is to encourage more faculty‑student interactions. Intensive faculty‑student interactions provide another form of social support to stimulate learning.  Students learn better in this environment. Unfortunately very few research universities can afford the economy of intensive faculty‑student interactions. However, undergraduate research can provide a setting for undergraduate students to collaborate with graduate students and postdocs.

Physics education is more than classroom teaching. It also involves apprenticeship training. For quite some time, many graduate students and postdocs have been burned under the old system. Graduate students and postdocs are utilized to provide labor to sustain the research enterprise. At the same time, they are put in the pipeline to become future competitors against their supervisors for prestige and research money. Shrewd supervisors will understand the strategic advantage of teaching graduate students and postdocs well enough to serve a purpose for a short time but not well enough to become future competition. As funding sources dwindle, these kinds of behavior will likely increase. If abuses widen, the number of graduate students and postdocs may further decline to drive the downward spiral of US physics even deeper.

Assuming that we have the best students undergoing the best training under the best professors, there is still a chance that these students will not succeed in finding permanent academic jobs in physics. NSF’s Science and Engineering Indicators in 2008 shows that only 20% of the postdocs get permanent jobs ( Given the fact that only a small fraction of PhD graduates get postdoc jobs, the overall success rate of all those who enter into vocational physics training is probably just 5%. Prospective students are often aware of the statistics. Unless the employment problem is resolved, we continue to limit the physics gene pool by losing students to engineering and computer science.

Given the bleakness of the physics job market, we need to prepare our students for the rainy days by educating them about various options in non‑traditional physics jobs. A supervisor may not be able to provide training in non‑traditional physics vocations per se; but he can at least give general advice to his students and send them to job fairs. The important idea is to create a safety net for the unlucky majority so that the flow of talents does not seize up.

Alfred Tang
Hong Kong

STEM is not Forever

I was pleased to see the Back Page analysis on the STEM Workforce in August/September attempting to look at the issues from several sides, but Professor Hira has avoided one key reality: STEM careers will not last a lifetime for Americans in the 21st century. Rather, STEM careers are like those in professional sports, something to aspire to while young. Some will make it big, like Bill Gates, but even Gates had to find something else to do in his middle years. Most will struggle in their 40’s and 50’s to feed their families and educate their children. Talented students recognize this and seek credentials in more stable fields, like marketing and law.

To keep on top of a technological world, our country will need to import talent, but in a way that encourages STEM workers to earn enough to retire in their lower-cost home countries by age 50. The H-1B visa–which is a form of indentured servitude–really doesn’t do that, although it serves the interests of employers by keeping salaries down.

Professional associations like the APS can help by creating options for those exiting the STEM workforce in mid life. STEM workers could be re-trained for the manipulation economy; working as insurance adjustors, investment advisors, creative accountants, mortgage brokers, and in other professions requiring numeracy. What is missing are the educational programs and fellowships to help us make the transition. If a life-long career path were visible, American students might come back to our fields.

Marc D. Levenson
Saratoga, CA

Licence to Publish Better than Copyright Transfer

Regarding the recent correspondence on APS’s approach to copyright: I work for a commercial organisation, in the R&D group, and my company’s policy is very simple. We NEVER transfer copyright to a publisher. We have a Licence to Publish agreement, which allows the publisher to print the article in their own format (which we are not allowed to reproduce) and distribute electronically etc. Crucially, however, the copyright on the content is retained by my organisation. This allows us to use text, pictures, etc. from our article as we wish.

If a publisher does not accept the Licence to Publish agreement, then we simply do not publish in that publisher’s journals.

I am sure mine is not the only commercial organisation that has such a copyright policy, and I would be amazed if the APS had never agreed to use such an agreement for publishing, when an author’s employers have had a similar policy to my own company. There is no reason why academic organisations should not adopt such a position too.

R.I. Taylor
Chester, UK

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff
Contributing Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Science Writing Intern: Nadia Ramlagan