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On January 1, 2018, Roger Falcone became the 104th President of the American Physical Society. He is currently a professor of physics at the University of California, Berkeley. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What would you like members to know about your scientific background and current research?
I was an undergraduate in physics at Princeton, and then went to California for graduate school at Stanford and a Ph.D. in electrical engineering. I stayed on at Stanford as a research fellow, working in atomic and laser physics for a few years in the applied physics department, and then moved to Berkeley’s physics department in 1983. I was chair of that department for 5 years, and for the last 10 years I was the director of the Advanced Light Source at Lawrence Berkeley Lab.
My research has generally involved the interaction of light with matter. Currently we study materials under extreme conditions of pressure and temperature. This means creating pressures up to a billion atmospheres and temperatures measured in millions of degrees, and examining the structure and properties of materials under those conditions.
The applications of our work extend from materials physics to planetary science, plasma physics, and fusion. My experiments now are at x-ray free electron lasers and large laser facilities, including the Linac Coherent Light Source at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
What is the role of the President at APS?
I think the role of the president is to ensure that priorities expressed by our members are addressed through APS programs and plans for the future. That means working with our volunteers, together with APS staff who know our organizational history and have the skills to implement our missions. By having elected leadership, we can help ensure coordination between the efforts of staff and members.
As our membership and the broader world change, and as our students become the new professionals, APS will evolve: How can we improve our meetings? How do we want to structure our activities in publishing? How can we advocate for science, with both governments and the public? How can our outreach be most effective? The president can help guide APS in responding to the consensus on answers to these questions.
Being in the presidential line specifically involves four years of activity, with the president working with a vice president, president elect, and past president. This structure helps ensure responsiveness and continuity.
There are other structures within APS, including membership units and other volunteer groups, the Council of Representatives, and the Board of Directors. The Council largely deals with the Society’s scientific mission and priorities, while the Board has responsibility for overseeing management and fiduciary responsibilities. These units distill ideas from members, but also make decisions and take deep dives into issues that are important to APS.
We also have a Board Executive Committee (BEC) that includes the presidential line, Treasurer, CEO, and Speaker of the Council; it has a weekly video conference. Part of the president’s role is to convene the BEC, and incorporate input received from staff, various units, and individual members, so we can respond in a timely way.
What are your key priorities for the year ahead?
The APS mission statement can be summarized as "being the leading voice for physics." There are several areas that I see as priorities for the Society in 2018 that can help ensure we will be that leading voice.
First, our role in disseminating our knowledge of physics has always been in the forefront, and it must remain strong and be of the highest quality. As I understand our history, APS was originally formed to coordinate meetings of physicists. A few years later APS took over The Physical Review, to disseminate physics through peer-reviewed publications. Of course, there will continue to be changes in relevant and supporting technologies, but meetings and scientific publications will remain core activities for APS.
We should advocate for the enterprise. That means engagement with government and private sector entities, and involvement in education. We should also enhance public understanding of science. So many people are interested in science but don’t practice it professionally. They are excited about our work and hungry for insight, and we can feed that.
Because scientific research is so dependent on government funding, we also need to advocate for appropriate policies for science. We can also advocate for science to influence broader government policies. As examples, we should provide appropriate scientific background to improve international relations and energy policy.
Next, I want to ensure that APS has impact. We should articulate the value of APS to all of our constituencies, whether that means government officials, the university, national lab and private sector communities, or scientists internationally who are involved because they publish in our journals or come to our meetings, or join our universities, labs, and companies. Explaining the value we add to their work is important.
Additionally, there are specific issues that involve economic policy and security where we can help. We can articulate the role of science in innovation, economic growth, and empowering people, as well as in national and global security. We want to be present for discussions in these areas.
Next, we must consider the future. I’m excited that we will develop a new APS strategic plan this year, and we are doing that in a careful and professional way. We are seeking member and staff input from the very beginning of the process, with planning committees to tackle individual topics. We’ve hired a consultant to assist us in developing the plan and facilitating interactions, to make sure that all ideas are considered.
I don’t see strategic planning as a tactical exercise, where we only say we are going to do X or Y, but the plan will lay out options, strategies, and rationales for new ideas. As we move forward in coming years, as resources become available and people want to champion certain causes, we will be able to look at the strategic plan and say, ok, now is the time for us to do this or that. Implementation of programs will be determined by the desires and efforts of members and leadership in the future.
Finally, we not only need great programs and ideas, but we have to ensure fiscal and organizational sustainability. Right now the Society is in good financial shape, but that doesn’t mean we can be complacent. We want to make sure our activities are sustainable, and we should be making the case to government agencies or private donors for new resources. We have to articulate the added value of what we want to do.
What do you see as the main challenges facing APS?
The way scientists disseminate their work is evolving. While I believe that we haven’t seen major changes in how meetings are handled (people want to get together and talk, and that hasn’t changed for generations), from the lengthening and growing number of scientific papers, to the reduction in printed journals, to the expanded flow of information and search capabilities on the Internet, the way we publish scientific information has been changing. We need to react to and maybe get out ahead of upcoming changes, including the movement to open access.
Fundamentally, the idea of peer review shouldn't and probably won’t change, as it allows us to develop consensus, and test understanding of what might be right or wrong. Science is both democratic and hierarchical, in the sense that we admire and reward quality from anywhere; this implies that peer review will remain, but logistical aspects of the current system could evolve.
Anticipating the evolving ways we disseminate and review science is very exciting. I want APS to be in a leadership role in providing the services that our communities want and need.
How can APS members get involved?
For strategic planning, we will be setting up a web portal for suggestions and comments. We will also be holding town hall meetings and interviews with leaders of units. So, joining and participating in the many APS units is a way to help. But even if somebody just wants to quietly participate, they could throw in some good ideas, join in a town hall meeting, or at least give input via the portal; we expect to have that up and running by the time of the APS March Meeting in Los Angeles.
I’ve been an APS member for decades, having joined as student, but when I jumped more deeply into the work of the Society, I was surprised by the breadth of our activities, which I didn’t see as a regular member. I knew about my specific units, and how meetings and awards were organized. But when I joined leadership, and saw, for example, the extent of our educational activities and advocacy work, and the complexity of editorial activities, etc… it’s really an amazing enterprise you can’t begin to understand unless you jump in!
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Editor: David Voss
Contributing Correspondent: Alaina G. Levine
Publication Designer and Production: Nancy Bennett-Karasik