Where Would We Be Without Industrial Physics—Today and Tomorrow?

By John Rumble, Steven Lambert, and Robert Doering

As we contemplate our world today and its future, we cannot help but marvel at the incredible changes in our daily lives brought about by industrial physics. A quick glance around an office reveals a smartphone, computers, printers, LED lights, digital sound systems, flash drives, with microelectronics, nanomaterials, lasers, and micro-magnets. These are transformative technologies and have created the 21st Century as we know it. How has this happened and what role does industrial physics play? To help answer these questions, the APS Industrial Physics Advisory Board has just released its report on The Economic Impact of Industrial Physics on the U.S. Economy, available at the Impact of Industrial Physics on the U.S. Economy page.

Defining Industrial Physics

  • Physicists with degrees in physics who work in industry
  • Engineers and other scientists and technical people who employ physical principles in their work
  • Use of fundamental physical principles to design and manufacture physical products and systems
  • Emerging knowledge of new physical principles that lead to innovative and new products and services

Economic Impact Report cover image

The fascinating findings of the study show that an estimated 12.6% of the U.S. economy can be ascribed directly to the practice of industrial physics, among other impacts summarized below.

APS thanks the financial supporters of this study:

  • American Institute of Physics
  • Wyatt Technology Corp., Santa Barbara CA
  • Texas Instruments, Inc., Dallas TX
  • Forum on Industrial and Applied Physics of the American Physical Society
  • R&R Data Services, Gaithersburg MD

Rather than simply reporting the findings, however, we want to address the larger issue of how the physics community can invest in the future so coming generations can benefit from physics advances being developed on whiteboards and lab benches today.

The economic impact found in the U.S. is broad, affecting many economic sectors, and results from a wide range of contributions from physicists as well as people who understand and use physics in designing, manufacturing, and using today’s complex systems, machines, instruments, devices, and materials. We believe the impact is a direct result of the dedication—on the part of industry, academia, and government—to support the richest and most innovative physics community in the world. Below are recommendations designed to continue the impact of industrial physics in the future.

Recommendations to Physics Communities to Promote the Future of Industrial Physics

Academia

APS is in a unique position to influence the U.S.-based physics academic community. These recommendations build on that strength and add focus to improving the readiness of physics-degree students for industrial careers. Our colleges and universities can ensure that all scientists and engineers have strong exposure to physics training as part of their basic requirements. APS can also provide exposure to industrial careers through webinars, national and sectional meetings, and industrial lectures at schools.

  • All two-year and four-year colleges should ensure physics classes are available at all levels.
  • Strong support should be given for implementation of the recommendations from the J-TUPP/Phys21 report: Preparing Physics Students for 21st Century Careers, available at compadre.org/jtupp/report.cfm.
  • Internships in industry for undergraduate and graduate students should be encouraged.
  • Counseling about industrial careers at all physics degree-granting schools, highlighting excellent career paths and salaries for physics grads at all degree levels should be available.
  • Graduate schools should encourage team research; internships; cross-department thesis topics; industrial liaisons; industrial professorships; industrial lectures and recruiting; business courses; career counselling; and LinkedIn pages or similar social media so students can contact previous graduates.
  • Post-docs should receive career counseling about industrial careers.

Government

The APS Office of Government Affairs has strong interactions with Congress and government agencies that support physics. The following recommendations build on that existing work.

  • Hyphenated-physics should be encouraged as industry routinely combines multiple disciplines in developing new products and services.
  • Government tech-transfer policies and procedures should be continually reviewed for effectiveness.
  • National physics-related facilities should have resources readily available for industrial use, including commercially-conducive intellectual property processes.
  • U.S. patent protection procedures should be periodically reviewed for competitiveness.
  • SBIR/STTR programs, especially focused on entrepreneurial goals, should be strongly supported.
  • Immigration policies should ensure that the brightest students are incentivized to study physics in the U.S. and are able to work for U.S.-headquartered companies after graduation.

Industry

Industry can take actions that catalyze the flow of physicists and physics to companies in the future. APS can help to encourage industrial engagement via:

  • Improved interactions with two-year, undergraduate, and graduate physics education programs, such as lectures, visiting professorships, participation in thesis committees, talks and attendance at APS Sectional meetings.
  • Internships for physics undergraduate and graduate students; industry can work with organizations such as APS to develop guidelines and suggestions for effective programs.
  • Involvement in local pre-college STEM efforts, with special emphasis on reducing entry barriers related to minority, gender, or socio-economic status.
  • Education of industrial HR departments about capabilities of students with physics degrees and how to recruit them.
  • Interactions with major government-industry programs, such as the NIST Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP).

American Physical Society

The following proposed activities align directly with the new APS Strategic Plan goals. The APS Industrial Physics Advisory Board is ready to provide support and additional information as appropriate.

  • Make a priority of retaining industrial physicist members, especially early career members.
  • Offer 1- or 2-day expert meetings strongly focused on topics of industrial physics interest to address the time and travel constraints of industrial physicists.
  • Provide industry-focused publications—peer-reviewed, technical journals as well as popular content such as the now-defunct Industrial Physicist magazine.
  • Provide career-growth training at major meetings aimed at early-career industrial physicists, such as project management, business basics, and people management.
  • Consider establishing a Center for Entrepreneurial and Industrial Physics to foster innovative programs on teaching and promoting entrepreneurship and industrial careers.
  • Provide Up-to-Speed physics information—TED© and other online talks, paper bundles; print-on-demand articles and abstracts relevant to hot topics of interest to industrial physicists.
  • Encourage sections to involve local industry in their meetings.

Students and Practicing Physicists

More than 50% of graduating physicists enter industry to find exciting and rewarding careers. The companies for which they work and the careers they pursue range from highly entrepreneurial technological start-up firms to well-established technology leaders to finance and banking to data analytics. The diversity of possibilities reflects the power of modern physics education, which emphasizes formulating the correct questions and being rigorous in developing answers based on facts. Some suggestions for students to expand their physics horizons include:

  • Talk to physicists in industry, and not just technological or scientific industries; hear directly about what working in industry is like, both in terms of rewards and challenges.
  • Expose yourself to topics of industrial interest such as new technologies, entrepreneurship, and applied physics; take advantage of APS meeting sessions on industrial and applied physics.
  • Pursue internships in industry.
  • Take advantage of APS career services for mentoring opportunities, job searches, interview and resume hints and help, and much more.
  • Consider taking an introductory business course or two.
  • Maintain your APS membership regardless—remember once a physicist, always a physicist!

Call to Action

Industrial physics is alive and well and provides innumerable benefits to physics, physicists, and society. It is critical to nurture the industrial physics enterprise and to ensure that it remains a major source of innovation, economic growth, and a positive influence on the future. All physicists, regardless of their interests, can participate in the rich environment. Let’s help its continued success.

John Rumble, Jr. is a chemical physicist and owner of R&R Data Services in Gaithersburg MD. He is also 2019 Speaker of the APS Council. APS Industrial Fellow Steven Lambert is a solid-state physicist who spent 27 years working in the hard drive industry in California. Robert Doering is a senior physicist and research manager at Texas Instruments, Inc. in Dallas, TX and a long-time contributor in physics societies. He is current chair of the APS Industrial Physics Advisory Board.

Industrial physics is a major contributor to the economic well-being of the United States.

Industrial physics contributed approximately 12.6% of value added (GDP) to the U.S. economy in 2016, about 2.3 trillion dollars.

Direct employment related to industrial physics was about 11,500,000 people in 2016, which accounted for almost 6% of total U.S. employment.

U.S. exports by physics-based sectors are about 1.1 trillion dollars (2016), which is approximately 20% of the value added (GDP) produced by those sectors.

In the period 2003 to 2016, approximately 70,000 degreed physicists joined industry.

Between 2010 and 2016, over 340,000 U.S. patents with the classification of physics were granted to U.S. companies.

In 2015, U.S. physics-based companies made internal R&D investments of over 150 billion dollars.

Between 1966 and 2016, the value added (contribution to GDP) in the physics-based sectors of the U.S. economy grew by a factor of 22. At the same time, the GDP grew by a factor of about 4 (both in 2016 constant dollars).

©1995 - 2020, AMERICAN PHYSICAL SOCIETY
APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: David Voss
Staff Science Writer: Leah Poffenberger
Contributing Correspondent: Alaina G. Levine
Publication Designer and Production: Nancy Bennett-Karasik

February 2019 (Volume 28, Number 2)

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Articles in this Issue
Synthesizing Current Research Succinctly and Elegantly
APS Bridge Program and the National Mentoring Community Visit Google HQ
APS Membership Unit Profile: The Topical Group on Medical Physics
One if by Land, Qubits by Sea: The 2019 APS March Meeting Heads to Boston
Impact of Women in STEM Roadshow in India
Fuzzy Fluid Dynamics
Q&A with Standard Bearer Steven Weinberg
The Dark Energy Survey’s Six-year Exploration Comes to An End
The 2018 Gallery of Fluid Motion Poster Winners
This Month in Physics History
News from the APS Office of Government Affairs
FYI: Science Policy News from AIP
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