New APS President Sees Opportunity in Changing Times
Malcolm R. Beasley, Sidney and Theodore Rosenberg Professor of Applied Physics at Stanford University, assumed the APS presidency on January 1st, 2014. In the following interview with APS News, he discusses his goals for the coming year.
What do you see as the most pressing issues facing the physics community right now?
Support for science. Both the budget and public support are ongoing problems–that is just so clear, and it's such a difficult issue for us now. We have to continue to work at that. I think APS has a large responsibility to work for all physics on that. And I think it has led us to be a little more imaginative than we were in the past. I think the initiative that Mike Lubell has championed, "Science Counts," is a new way to do it, getting a number of societies together and forming an organization that is going to try to reach out to the public in a more effective and professional way. These are, I think, very good things. You just have to constantly work at that.
I think also it's a brave new world in scientific publishing. I like that phrase because it captures the feeling of it all. It is one of the primary goals of APS to publish physics literature, and we are admired for our journals, and that is something that we want to continue to do. But there are all kinds of things going on. The question of open access; open access is a good thing, but it has to be done in a way that does not undermine the financing of the scientific societies. Not just APS, because most societies depend on some income from publications to do the public service things they do, and those are important too. Outreach and some of the services that we can provide our members are all dependent on that kind of income. It's not only the changes that are going on, but we have to make sure our financial model is consistent with those changes.
Of course there is more competition, which is a good thing I suppose; the proliferation of new journals. It's just changing very rapidly. It's so important to us and to the quality of our journals that we just have to keep at this and make sure we do it properly. It's one of those things that is going to take a lot of effort and time going forward.
What other issues might the Society have to address in the year?
There is a big one. The Presidential Line and the Executive Board have come to the realization that if we are to meet all of the responsibilities we have, we need to do an even better job. I think the Society performs very very well, but in these times of rapid change, we have to be as effective as possible. This is one of the goals of the Strategic Plan. It has led the Executive Board and the Presidential Line to form an ad hoc Committee on Corporate Reform to look at the governance and executive structure in APS to see how we might be even more effective than we've been in order to be the leading society that we want to be.
There are other reasons for doing this. We are incorporated in Washington DC and the rules of incorporation are changing. These are sensible changes they are making, designed to improve the excellence of non-profit corporations, and we have to comply with those. So it seems another reason to look at our governance and structure.
Last but not least, Joe Serene, our Treasurer-Publisher, is retiring and so there's a need to look at how that's handled and define the position and hire new people to do it. There is an APS News article in this issue that will describe this in more detail. It's also interesting to me that we are not alone. The American Geophysical Union just went through this process, AIP is going though it, and we had a briefing from the president of the Canadian Physical Society at the Council meeting last week and they're going through this all for the same reasons we are. So I think it's a time in the history of scientific societies that we are examining our governance in light of all the changes going on, and it'll be a good thing.
What do you think will be your main focus and what will you do to achieve your goals?
I will have to manage this corporate reform and work with Executive Officer Kate Kirby on the Strategic Plan and to do it on the timescale that we're thinking, in a year. That's going to take a very large effort. However you simply cannot fail to pay attention to public support and funding for science and these publication issues. It's a very large agenda; I don't see how you can avoid dealing with all three of those.
How would describe how your presidency will be guided by the Strategic Plan?
The Strategic Plan is done. It's really in the proper scheme of things, now for Kate and the other operating officers to implement the plan and she is doing that. There are a number of task forces that have been formed. One on early career physicists, one on development and there are ongoing ones now looking at the meetings. That is really now properly part of the executive responsibilities and I just want to do everything that I can do to help Kate and the operating officers.
How well do you think the Society is serving its members, and are there any areas where you think the APS could enhance its programs?
I think in general we serve our members very well. They seem to think we do. There are always ways to improve and we want to do that. We're trying to listen more, see what they want and how they feel we serve them best or where we can do things better. That's just good communications. There is one task force formed looking at how to improve the meetings for the members. There are some new elements that we have not been so conscious about, and we are working very hard on these this year. One is to reach out to the early career members. Their career opportunities are different than has been typical over the last several decades. This leads us to the reasons that we want to reach out more to industrial physicists–are we serving them well? I think we want to look at serving our members in general, but I think the particular focus on early careers and industrial physicists are two very important foci for our efforts to serve our members better in the coming year.
What do you see as the Society's role in public policy?
I think that APS is admired for the degree to which we advocate for physics, largely through our Washington office, and we need to continue to do that. What's interesting about it is that the issues where physicists and the APS intersect with public policy and the imperatives of the nation are changing substantially. For example, some of the areas that we are looking at, take climate change or energy issues, are not pure physics issues. There are a lot of other elements to them. We probably will be working with other societies as we have in the past to deal with these broader, more complex issues. There has even been POPA activity that is involved internationally. So I think these are new aspects of how we reach out, which I think are healthy and good, and we need to learn how to do them as well as we possibly can. I see the agenda for our public policy as broadening and getting more complex, in the sense that these issues are not just physics focused.
What do you see as the Society's role on international issues?
We are an international Society in many ways. As you may know, two-thirds of our papers are from abroad. I think twenty to twenty-five percent of our members are from abroad, and we welcome that. They are telling us that they like this Society. We are the American Physical Society, but obviously we do things that are of value internationally and we want to do more of that and to be an effective participant in the leadership of physics internationally, and working with other physical societies. Our international office is working hard to make those connections. Everybody agrees there needs to be more interaction internationally between the various societies. Looking forward the important thing is to begin to reduce those to concrete things to do. There will be a task force which is going to look at those kinds of issues, and I'm sure they'll come up with some very good and challenging recommendations. I think it's very very important.
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?
I think the APS has been a leader in defining programs and implementing them successfully. There are the PhysTEC and the Bridge programs, which are the principle ones now. I think the needs are very great and I think the imagination of the membership and certainly the staff in APS is strong in thinking of things that can be done usefully. The question is finding the resources to do that. I think that more can be done, more should be done, and we will find the resources to do that, both through government funding and development.
How did you first become interested in physics?
High school physics–I just liked it. I took chemistry as a junior and physics as a senior and I just liked physics better. I always had an interest in technology, and when I went to Cornell I started out in mechanical engineering but I found I liked the physics courses better. I shifted over into what they called engineering physics at the time. It was marine boot camp for physics and certain parts of engineering. I enjoyed that; it was wonderful for me and had a huge impact on me. I went on and got my PhD in physics and have worked in various applied physics departments over my years. I have combined the two interests in science and technology by working on parts of physics that are potentially interesting for technology. I'm more interested in science that appears interesting for major applications and technologies. I'm not myself involved so much with trying to solve the particular problems of today's technology; it's more future looking. That's been a great thing for me. I've enjoyed it immensely.
Why did you choose to run for the APS Presidential Line?
I have to start with an anecdote I really like. When I was elected, one of my colleagues said to me "Well Mac, running for the President of APS is the kind of thing that you want to lose by one vote." I guess I'm glad they miscounted by one vote and I was elected.
Physics has been good to me and I'm not a young man anymore, so it's time to pay back. I have, for whatever reason, gained a lot of administrative experience over the years and been part of reforming departments and schools and universities. I think it's appropriate and I value bringing that experience to serve the APS. It is a great organization and I firmly, firmly believe that no field can really thrive if it isn't well managed. The management can be in the background and quiet if that's the way it should be, but you need somebody worrying about the overall health and doing the right things, and APS has been very good about doing that over the years. I just hope I can also do some good while I'm at it.
I just think that the overall reality right now, and of my presidency therefore, is to rally and adapt to this brave new world we're in, not only in publishing but also in support of science. Change is upon us, it's a good thing and my desire is to bring in the best people to deal with those issues and keep APS as a model of a scientific society.