Curtis Callan, a professor of physics and chair at Princeton University, assumed the APS presidency on January 1st 2010. In the following interview with APS News
, he discusses his priorities for the Society during his presidential year.
Q: What do you see as the most pressing issues facing the physics community right now?
If you believe the newspapers, it is the crisis in confidence in science created by the “Climategate” email revelations. Sadly, I think they have a point. We physicists didn’t create this problem, but we stand to lose a lot if public confidence in science–the presumption that scientists don’t manipulate data to make a point–is damaged. The question for the APS is how we might contribute to the discussion in a way that best makes use of our core competence as physicists. This will no doubt be the subject of APS Council discussions all this year. If we get time to think about it, I would also like to see us address the question of how best to argue for societal support of science, physical as well as biological, basic as well as applied. Most of us are intuitively convinced that basic science is not just decoration, and that over the long term it drives the engine of prosperity and quality of life by making possible groundbreaking innovations and drawing youth into science careers. Indeed, there are a number of economic studies from the 50’s–‘70’s that have demonstrated a direct link, but they need to be updated and put in terms that would permit an OMB director to know what percentage of GDP we absolutely must invest in science if we are to ensure our future prosperity. This will be a serious issue when the US heads back toward balanced budgets, as it is bound to in the next couple of years, and I think the APS could take the lead in helping science as a whole address this question.
Q: What will be your main focus during your presidential year? What approach will you take towards achieving these goals?
Let me respond by talking first about something that may seem a bit off the point. Some of the discussion in my email inbox concerning the APS climate statement of two years ago, and then the question of how APS should respond to “Climategate” has, in my opinion, gotten overly warm. The APS has bylaws that enshrine the principle that all policy is set by Council, and from that principle follow procedures, perhaps slow and cumbersome, but sound. In a society where policy is made by elected member representatives (who have demanding day jobs) the time scale on which decisions can be made is necessarily drawn out. So I would counsel patience to my colleagues as the Society wrestles with these issues. One lesson President Murray and others have drawn from recent experience is that it would be good to institutionalize some mechanism for “member comment” on statements before Council takes action. A trial version of this will be implemented in the coming months, specifically to deal with matters arising from the climate statement issue (keep your eyes on this page for more info). The bylaws committee has been tasked to look into making some such provision a permanent feature of Council approval of APS statements. This goes in the direction of increased transparency and, with modern IT options, should be quite practicable. So, to answer your question about my focus, in the first instance, it will be to try to calm things down so that the Society can conduct its business in a more normal mode. Without that, thinking about any of the greater plans I might have in mind will be pointless. As far as the climate issue goes, the APS, along with most other scientific societies, is a bit player in the drama. Whatever we say will only have a useful, if necessarily modest, impact to the extent that what we do is done deliberately and without acrimony.
Q: How well is the Society serving its members? Are there any areas where you think APS programs could be enhanced?
This has been a subject of active discussion in the Executive Board and Council under the rubric of “how can we make membership more valuable to the individual APS member?” Our publications and our membership departments are actively working together on ways to give APS members more powerful and customized web access to physics-related information. I believe that the new online journal “Physics!” is a very good example of what can be done and I hope to see more. The important point is that all arms of the Society have taken it on themselves to pool their expertise and work together to create new and better reasons for physicists to be members of the APS. It can’t just be the journals and the meetings any more: most physicists get access to the journals through their institution, and would go to the essential meetings in their field whether or not they were members. We have talented and dedicated staff who are working on this “business development” task with new enthusiasm, and I expect to see some interesting proposals brought to Council in the near future.
Q: What do you see as the Society’s role in public policy?
In the end, this is defined by what the members want, and this is something which we learn through the work of the Physics Policy Committee (PPC), the Panel on Public Affairs (POPA) and the associated forums. For some decades, the members have wanted the Society to be activist in public affairs. To be heard in the public arena, we lobby Congress on legislation, and we perform and disseminate studies, both activities focused on subjects where physics and public issues intersect. I believe that both are important, must be done carefully and selectively, and with due regard to our special competence as physicists. The lobbying is done on the basis of positions developed by our committees and approved by Council: there is no free-lancing! It’s a no-brainer that we should lobby for more/better funding for physics, but we should do (and have done) more. The recent energy efficiency study seems to me to have hit a “sweet spot” between public policy importance and physics community competence. As a result of that study, our DC office has a raft of specific good suggestions to make to the drafters of any energy or climate bill. I hope to see more of this kind of thing.
Q: What do you see as the Society’s role on international issues?
Given the internationalization of science, cross-border issues are hard to avoid. The US is still pretty much the center of the scientific world, but you only have to look at the LHC to see that our unique position is eroding. And that’s just in relation to Europe. Asia and India have every intention of building scientific enterprises that will eventually match the quality and scope of ours. If mankind doesn’t screw up the 21st century the way it screwed up the first half of the 20th, these countries can get there and there is no question that the APS will have to pay attention. Our journals already serve the whole world and we are looking for new ways to make APS membership more valuable to our many international members. The APS has an expansive view of what a physics society can and should do in its home country and I would like to engage in discussions with some of our sister societies, especially in the countries which will become our “peer competitors”, to identify ways we can usefully act together internationally.
Q: In recent years, APS has been increasing its focus on education and outreach. What do you think of these efforts and how will you guide them?
As I have been working my way up the presidential line, I have been learning more and more about these efforts, and becoming more and more impressed with what our small but dedicated staff has been able to achieve with modest resources. The APS seems to have found a way to have a significant continuing impact on the high-school physics teacher problem. It is also about to start a program which will address the thorny problem of increasing the number of minority students who successfully complete a physics PhD. These are important initiatives for the profession and the country and I will give them my enthusiastic backing.
Q: How will you guide APS through the current economic downturn?
By the time these words are in print, I am sure we will be reading in the papers that the recession is over. The biggest impact of the financial crisis on the APS was a big hit to the reserve fund, with the result that the draw on reserves needed to fund the activities of the Society suddenly became alarmingly large. Immediate steps to soften the blow were taken, including short-term budgetary stringencies and minimal salary increases for our hard-working staff. More importantly, though, the financial shock focused the leadership’s attention on the need for developing a long-term financial plan and a coherent budgeting process across the whole society. A bit of spreadsheet arithmetic can quickly convince one that this is necessary if we are to have any hope of sustaining our current scope of activities over the long run. President Murray made this a focus of the Executive Board retreat last June, and my job is to make sure that the good ideas that came out of that exercise are fully implemented. By the way, let me emphasize that our financial position is sound at the moment because of two things: the decision of the society some years ago to build a reserve fund, and the steady increases in efficiency and cost-effectiveness achieved by our journal operations. The future, however, is cloudy: first, we have entered an era where we need the reserve to support operations (it’s a source of income, not just a rainy day fund); second, there is no long-term stable business model for financing scientific publishing (the outcome of the open access debate is central to the future of scientific publishing). Budget discussions can be mind-numbing, but I would like to come back to all this in another issue of APS News
Q: How did you become interested in physics?
It started with my grandmother taking me to the Hayden Planetarium in New York for my seventh birthday. I was simply enthralled by the story of the planets, stars and the galaxies which was presented in the classic Hayden show. Then in fourth or fifth grade I discovered that math was fascinating and that I was good at it, and I think in the end the intersection of mathematics and the wonders of the universe naturally led me to physics. My mother took us to the terrific public library in our neighborhood (this was NYC before any fiscal crisis) every Monday night and I discovered popular books about math and science (books by Hoyle …including Hoyle’s sci-fi, Gamow, and others) which I read avidly. Somehow, by the time I got to high school this had all crystallized into a conviction that theoretical physics was my goal and I never looked back. The only thing I slightly regret about my education is that, by the time it got really serious in college, I was entirely focused on (obsessed by?) mathematics and physics. In retrospect, not taking the time to learn chemistry and biology at a time when the DNA area was just opening was stupid. But I hope to make up for lost time.
Q: Why did you choose to run for the APS presidential line?
I was asked to run by someone I greatly respect. That person told me in no uncertain terms that I owed it to my profession to pay back a little bit of what I had received from it. He also pointed out that the world could probably live without the few papers I would not be able to write because I had taken the time to help run the APS. You have to admit, arguments like these are hard to resist!