Towards An Industrial Physics Community

By John Rumble

National Issues in Industrial Physics book cover

Physics plays a central role in modern industry because it is critical for explaining, extending, and predicting technology and its resultant products. Moreover, physics-inspired analysis leads to improved results in the non-technological aspects of industry as well as in technical matters. Some of the evidence for this is the strong demand from industry: more than 50% of persons with advanced physics degrees get their first permanent job in the private sector [1].

Given this importance of physics to and in industry, it is appropriate to ask what, if anything, needs to be done in
  • Ensuring the flow of physicists into industry remains strong,
  • Supporting industrial physics, and
  • Fostering the industrial physics community.

In this brief essay, I will discuss these three issues and highlight ideas by APS’s Forum on Industrial and Applied Physics (FIAP) as responses. Many of the ideas presented here result from the October 2014 APS/FIAP Workshop on National Issues in Industrial Physics [2].

Ensuring the flow of excellent physicists into industry

In working towards an advanced degree, a physicist learns how to formulate a significant physics problem, develops enough experimental and theoretical skills to solve the problem, and then presents the results to the community at large. In most cases, however, employers are looking for the ability to develop technical skills required for their industry rather than expecting a young physicist to come in ready to contribute immediately. Our present educational system does a very good job preparing the physics side of being a physicist.

What we have heard, however, from both industry and students alike, is that the non-technical aspects of working in industry are not well addressed. Young physicists receive little or no training in how industry operates, in how physicists work in industry, and on how to best prepare themselves for a career in industry. APS, FIAP, physics departments, and physics funding agencies all have roles to play. A number of opportunities have been identified.

Mentoring: A clearinghouse for potential mentors could arrange matches with students. At the same time, there need to be guidelines for effective mentorships and increased emphasis on the importance of being mentored. APS’s Local Links and other means can be used to recruit industrial physicists as mentors. Overall, the definition of relationship between mentoring and thesis advising need to be clarified.

Internships: Internships are useful in introducing physicists to industrial practice, so a clearinghouse for arranging placement is needed, and companies need to be recruited to participate. Intern opportunities have to be more widely publicized. Questions about how to cover costs and what happens when degrees are delayed need answers. Ultimately, there has to be recognition of the importance of internships to graduates going into industry.

Industrial career guidance: We need to upgrade career development guidance. This can be accomplished with additional industrial career sessions at national and especially at sectional APS meetings. Guidance and resources about industrial careers can be provided to department coordinators and thesis advisors, including links to local industrial physicists and encouraging regular seminars featuring industrial physicists.

Entrepreneurship: Entrepreneurial spirit is a quality valued in industry, and sessions on entrepreneurship at national and sectional meetings will bolster it among young physicists. These sessions could be complemented with departmental sponsorship of “entrepreneurial” days featuring local entrepreneurs.

Training for teams: The lone genius is not the typical style in industry; instead industry uses teams whose members bring complementary expertise to the table. Guidelines need to be established for advanced physics degrees in team projects, and team projects for advanced physics degrees should be encouraged.

Mid-career transitions: Early career physicists are not the only story. Mentoring and career information for those in mid-career is vital, and this could be aided by departmental lists of alumni willing to provide mentoring and support.

Supporting industrial physics

Industrial physics is a broad activity that ranges from large research centers in international corporations to one physicist supporting a medium-size but thriving company to entrepreneurs in the latest start-up, and everything in between. It includes basic research discovering new physics, solving physics-related technological problems, and using physics to develop and improve products in both traditional physics-related industries such as electronics, and rapidly emerging areas in nanotechnology and bio-medicine.

One common feature of today’s industrial physics environment is the breadth of interactions with diverse organizations, involvement in business practices, and collaborations with multiple scientific and technical disciplines. While this environment has been in place for decades, the last twenty years have seen significant changes due to the decentralization of research, the explosion of connectivity of people and organizations through the internet, globalization of industry, and a renewed entrepreneurial spirit within the US and abroad.

These changes have impacted industrial physics in many ways, some of which were highlighted in the National Issues Workshop including:

Intellectual property rights (IPR): Best general practices are emerging, especially in recognition of the cost involved in complex arrangements; while the Bayh-Dole Act that has facilitated patenting for individuals in academia and the government has been quite successful, developing IPR agreements between industry and academia and government continues to present barriers.

Government-industry partnerships: Government agencies recognize the benefits of close partnership with industry in addressing societal and technological problems. To achieve higher returns for such investments, user facilities must accommodate industrial needs for timely decisions, program managers should more aggressively pursue industrial input prior to launching major initiatives, innovation programs should reflect greater agility and less bureaucracy, and steps should be taken to retain and employ U.S.-trained foreign physicists.

Industry-academia partnerships: The steady improvement in these partnerships can be further enhanced by clearer definition of roles (specifically industry’s need to turn investments in products) as well as use of best IPR practices (with recognition by universities that new or improved products usually require multiple patents for success).

Fostering the industrial physics community

The role of 21st Century industrial physics continues to be important, with a focus on its growing impact to industry and to society. The pace of technological advances seen in the 20th Century has not diminished in the first 15 years of this new century. Not only do industries such as electronics, telecommunications, and computing seem to advance with no slowdowns, other major industrial sectors are now drawing on the skills of physicists to understand, control, and manipulate physical processes to advance areas such as bio-medicine, transportation and energy, nanotechnology, and food production and delivery. As these industries take advantage of new physics, industrial physicists are finding themselves working on problems far afield from those of the 20th century.

The environment in which this takes place is also considerably different. Industrial physicists often work as teams containing few other physicists. Many work in start-up organizations or are entrepreneurs themselves. They work in international settings with scientists and engineers from diverse disciplines. Yet these industrial physicists still identify as physicists and want to be associated with a community of like-minded industrial physicists.

The APS has been proactive in engaging with the industrial physics community including many programs to educate students about industrial careers, hiring an Industrial Physics Fellow to manage programs focused on industry, and continuing focus from APS leaders. The APS should build on these steps including the following proposals for concrete actions.

Prepare a report on the successes and impact of U.S. industrial physics: In spite of its importance the success and impact of industrial physics in the United States has not been fully documented; such a report would identify areas in which U.S. leadership in industrial physics is challenged as well as areas in which emerging economic sectors and industry would benefit by new investments related to industrial physics.

Build and brand the industrial physics community: It is time for APS to recognize the breadth of industrial physics and to provide 21st century level services in building and branding this significant physics community. Highlight the innovations and successes of industrial physicists with the same attention given to academic physics.

Establish an Industrial Physics Advisory Board: An important first step in highlighting industrial physics is to set up an APS industrial physics advisory board with the mandate to identify the needs and opportunities for serving industrial physics. This advisory board should not only review present APS services and how they can be enhanced for industrial physicists, but also consider the specialized needs of industrial physics and identify new and innovative programs to meet those needs.

Timely access and networking on emerging ideas and innovation relevant for industrial physics: APS’s programs that provide information in a timely fashion through outstanding publications, national and local meetings, and informal networking opportunities need to be extended to meet the demands and realities of industrial physics. Industry is schedule driven, and few industrial physicists can afford to attend week-long, multi-disciplinary meetings. They need short, focused, and high payoff meetings, highlighting state-of-the-art work on topics of industrial interest. They need publications that focus on topics of broad industrial interest to keep them abreast of new ideas in fields outside their present focus. Many other societies do this successfully and APS is best positioned for providing such meetings to the industrial physics community.

Actions, not just words

Perhaps the most important message I can convey now is that the opportunity to advance industrial physics complements and builds upon the outstanding work the APS does in serving academic and private sector physicists today. APS has built a broad and effective leadership in academic physics that both serves the integrated needs of the diverse fields of physics and represents that community effectively to international organizations, national policy makers, and the university community.

Actions aimed at industrial physicists will require investment by APS, but given the large number of advanced degree physicists working in industry, there is a vast audience waiting to be served. As we acknowledge that science, technology, and solutions to societal problems are intricately intertwined, APS, as the world’s leading physics organization, is well positioned to serve the broadest possible physics community. Now is the time to effectively include the industrial physics community in this global organization.

John Rumble worked for the National Institute of Standards and Technology as Director of the NIST Standard Reference Data Program and Chief of the NIST Measurement Services Division. Rumble was Executive VP of Information International Associates and is now President of R&R Data Services, in Gaithersburg MD. Rumble is presently Past-Chair of the APS FIAP.

1. Douglas N. Arion, Physics Today 66, 42 (2013).

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Editor: David Voss
Staff Science Writer: Emily Conover
Contributing Correspondent: Alaina G. Levine
Art Director and Special Publications Manager: Kerry G. Johnson
Publication Designer and Production: Nancy Bennett-Karasik

October 2015 (Volume 24, Number 9)

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CEO Robert Brown Discusses Plans for American Institute of Physics
Charges Dropped for Physicist Accused of Sharing Sensitive Technology with China
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