APS News

December 2017 (Volume 26, Number 11)

Charting a Future for U.S. Physics

Editor’s Note: The following roundtable discussion with 2017 APS President Laura Greene, 2018 APS President Roger Falcone, and APS Director of Public Affairs Francis Slakey is reprinted from a special report on physics in the U.S. published by Physics World (Institute of Physics, U.K.) with kind permission.

The current and future presidents of APS—Laura Greene and Roger Falcone—along with public-affairs director Francis Slakey—talk to Physics World about their hopes and fears for physicists under the Trump administration.

Laura Greene, Roger Falcone, Francis Slakey photos

APS President Laura Greene, APS President-Elect Roger Falcone, and APS Director of Public Affairs Francis Slakey

What’s been your overall impression of Trump’s administration?

Laura Greene: There’s a tremendous divide in the U.S. and what we’ll do as APS is to keep our lines open to the legislature—to members of our Congress and senators—and ensure they understand that a big part of the American economy is supported by science and technology.

Roger Falcone: We live in interesting times politically but there’s a broader debate over the importance of science and technology to innovation, which translates into jobs and other benefits to people. It’s a much larger discussion and we should focus on that rather than any individual administration.

How well have you communicated with the Trump administration?

RF: There are typically two groups we want to talk to—one is the executive branch, such as the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), and the other is the legislative branch, or Congress. We still have great communication channels with the members and staffers in Congress, who are very interested in hearing our stories. Our ability to advocate for science and technology through Congress has not diminished. But there are fewer people to talk with in the administration, in the executive branch. That said, we have great communications with the executive branch agencies responsible for providing resources to scientists and engineers, such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Department of Energy (DOE).

Francis Slakey: The administration is simply not staffed up to the extent that Obama’s was. The obvious example is the OSTP where there’s a skeleton crew there, just a couple of people. Under Obama, it was a robust office and you always found people to whom you had ready access. But those positions have not been filled—and may not be—so part of the trick has been to find ways in to the handful of people at the DOE or in the Office of Management and Budget.

What impact could this lack of communication have?

RF: I see two critical things for science and the country. First, we need science to inform anything our government is doing. We want to make sure science is included in all those policy discussions, and I’m not sure that is happening without senior scientific advisers in the government. We also need a good policy for science, which means knowing how best to invest precious tax dollars in science. Maybe there, via agencies and Congress, we’ve found more people to engage with.

Trump’s budget proposal for 2018 earmarks big cuts to the likes of the NSF and major national labs. What are the dangers for U.S. physics if those proposals go through?

LG: The repercussions of those cuts need to be thought through and that’s what we’re trying to get through to our legislators. If you lose a hundred scientific jobs, you’re probably losing thousands of jobs for people who work in those locations. At the National High-Magnetic Field Laboratory, for example, most people aren’t scientists and the economic impact of the labs to that area is vital. We also have an educational role—training the next generation of students—and a big role in innovation, bringing new techniques to market. The U.S. is still a leader in science and engineering—and deep cuts to science will be bad news.

RF: There’s no question the U.S. faces significant challenges with respect to annual deficits in our budget and the integrated national debt. Science and technology comes under a portion of that budgeted funding that’s discretionary, which means we have to decide it every year and it’s not set in stone. It’s our job to argue that our precious dollars should be spent on science and to articulate why those investments are going to lead to innovation and jobs.

FS: The budget was not a surprise. We knew what was coming and had encouraged scientists to make the case for science to their local representatives and senators. We’d also learned from the first budget battle we’d fought in the spring, where we got Congress on our side to push back. To me, the issue is less about the 2018 numbers, but about what happens next February when the 2019 numbers are released and whether we are making any progress with the administration. The question will be: are we seeing better numbers? We’ll be fighting every year for the next three years.

How do you feel about Trump’s attempts to ban people from certain nations from travelling to the U.S.?

LG: When I talk to young researchers in the U.S. who have to come to work in this country, many of them tell me they are looking to find jobs elsewhere because they are worried about leaving the country and not being able to come back. The long-term impact is that we could have a brain drain of the brightest people in the world not wanting to come to the U.S. any more.

FS: When the immigration ban was first announced, all the companies I talked to were opposed to the ban—not because the numbers coming from any one of those countries was going to impact their business, but because they were concerned with the tone and the complete disregard it showed for the importance of the free flow of talent around the world. American industry needs to be able to hire the best talent wherever they are in the world. The executive branch didn’t understand that point.

RF: At APS, we recognize science is an international enterprise. For example, more papers are published in APS journals from scientists in Europe than from those in the U.S. The travel ban is creating bad climate and morale.

Do you think the March for Science was a success? Did it have any impact on the budget or on people not marching for science?

LG: That’s a very, very tough question. I know I was hesitant to get involved with it because I didn’t want to take a political stance. But when the march became really embraced on a worldwide stage as a pro-science, not a political statement, I think a lot of organizations such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and APS had a role in making sure it remained non-political. Did it have an effect? Well you’ve seen the president’s budget so it didn’t have an effect on that. But it did show just how science impacts on society, how much fun it is, how gorgeous the discovery process is.

RF: What I really liked about the Phoenix march, where I gave a talk, was that the biggest applause came when I thanked the science teachers. Bunches of teachers and their spouses came up to thank me. So I think the march boosted science teachers—gave them a sense of appreciation and recognition. That may not have been the major goal of the march, but the fact that so many regular people, who are not engaged in science and technology, could show their appreciation to schools and teachers was really powerful.

So no regrets about endorsing the march as a society?

RF: No, not at all. It was so much bigger than any individual person or society.

LG: It was not political. There were certain people who tried to politicize it. But it was so vast, so broad, so international. I was really nervous but I’m really happy right now.

Bill Foster is currently the only physicist in Congress. Do you think more physicists should get involved in politics?

LG: Yes we need more people involved. APS, as does the AAAS, has a congressional fellowship programme to help train people to get involved. There were times we had as many as three physicists in Congress and I would definitely like to see more. APS members want to be involved. They’re starting to understand how important it is for their own survival.

FS: It depends what you mean by "involvement." I want more physicists to make the case for science to their elected officials and about 1200 APS members have already done so.

RF: The influence of science on social policy is enormous, whether it’s just saying that actions need to be data-driven, or we need innovation to create replacement jobs for people who’ve been displaced from low-skilled jobs by automation. That engagement [with officials] is as important as running for office.

FS: There’s no question that the same issues we’re addressing in the U.S. politically are happening all over the world. We must work across all societies in the U.S., Europe and Asia to articulate how science can best contribute to the issues we’re addressing.

Laura, how do you feel about your presidency so far?

LG: I wanted to take the job on because I care about APS and about physics and science diplomacy, and human rights. I don’t look like a calm person but I think I’m a calming influence on people who want to react very strongly and may damage our society and science in general. But yeah I’m having a blast. I love working with the people here.

Are you happy with the overall diversity of APS?

LG: The APS has done tremendous things on diversity. The number of programmes for women in physics is huge. The Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics started out [in 2006] with a hundred people and it’s now grown by orders of magnitude. About a year and a half ago we published an LGBT report that’s had a tremendous impact. We have a committee on minorities that’s been terrific, offering fellowships and identifying speakers and reminding people to invite minorities as speakers or to nominate them for medals or awards. [APS is a world leader] in pushing diversity and I’m very proud of that.

Roger, what about your plans for your term as president in 2018?

RF: I’ve been trying to figure out how to follow Laura’s great leadership! We have a formal position of past president at the APS, who stays engaged in the decision-making process, so I’m really pleased she’ll be continuing to guide us. Her focus has been on science diplomacy, but I’ll focus more on how to articulate the role of science and technology in economic development for society.

In a word, how would you sum up the state of U.S. physics?

RF: Optimistic.

LG: Innovative.

Any final message for the world’s physics community?

LG: Let’s work together.

RF: I’ll second that!

Gray Arrow Full special report

December 2017 (Volume 26, Number 11)

Table of Contents

APS News Archives

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Articles in this Issue
What You Need to Know: APS and SCOAP3
APS Inventories Its Carbon Footprint
Charting a Future for U.S. Physics
YouTube’s Physics Girl
A Physicist Pushes for Interstellar Travel
Robert Henry Bragg, Jr. 1919-2017
Managing the Flood of Space Program Data
International News
This Month in Physics History
News from the APS Office of Public Affairs
The Back Page

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Editor: David Voss
Contributing Correspondent: Alaina G. Levine
Publication Designer and Production: Nancy Bennett-Karasik