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By Leah Poffenberger
David Gross has been a member of APS for over 50 years, during which he has become a renowned and highly decorated theoretical physicist—and a Nobel Laureate, after winning the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2004. He was Director of the Kavli Institute of Theoretical Physics (KITP) at the University of California from 1997 to 2012, and now serves as the president of APS. Gross sat down with APS News to discuss his goals for his presidential year, the new APS Strategic Plan, and the future of APS. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Can you outline your plans for the presidential year?
A: One thing that I have learned from serving as APS Vice President and President Elect is that in this position you have to swing with the punches. Larger national goals for the APS are currently on hold, as we are largely in a defensive mode trying to prevent bad things from happening. APS has had some important victories in this regard in recent years. Internally, last year was a very busy year for all of us, especially for APS management and members of the Board and Council, as we put together a Strategic Plan for the society.
It was a lot of work, but worthwhile. I am very pleased that the Strategic Plan contains new initiatives that are exciting and will lead to new programs and new ways of doing things. There are some that I’m particularly interested in—the Innovation Fund (IF), a new annual meeting, and new ideas about the future of scientific publications.
Q: What is the purpose of the Innovation Fund?
A: APS is a membership organization with almost 60,000 members, many of whom are very active and eager to serve. APS has funds that could be used to meet new goals and implement new ideas of all these very talented people. That is the purpose of the Innovation Fund. I am always impressed with the talent and creativity of physicists, especially our members. I have no doubt that, given a challenge and an incentive to implement new ideas, new ideas will emerge from the society.
The format of the Innovation Fund is very flexible. We want to incentivize our members and staff to think of new ideas and to try them out. If they don’t work—then we will go on and do something else. This mode of operation, where one can experiment, try new things and risk failure, I've always felt is central to a flourishing organization. It is an essential feature of a research institute like the KITP, but is equally important to the APS. So that is one of the motivations for the IF.
Q: You mentioned a new APS meeting, expanding on the annual leadership convocation. What are your thoughts along this line?
A: We have had much discussion at the APS—for decades—about whether to restore the April Meeting, which used to be an annual meeting, to its original status. We decided not to touch the April Meeting but to create a different kind of meeting, one that addresses some of the goals that aren't addressed by any of the other meetings, by building on the leadership convocation, which already brings many people to Washington in early February. Such an “annual meeting” will be different than the other meetings that are organized by the units. It will be an all-APS meeting, something like the AAAS annual meeting. By highlighting advances in physics across all fields we hope to get attention from the media, Congress, and funding agencies, and be of interest to many of our members.
Q: You also mentioned new ideas in journal publishing as something you’re focused on in your presidential year. What new ideas would you like to see in this area?
A: Journal publishing is at the heart of the mission of the APS. It is also a major source of revenue. A big part of the APS budget comes from the [revenue] of the publishing business of APS. But the very nature of scientific publishing, and its business model, is in flux because of advances in IT, the Internet, and the arXiv, and the growing demands for open access.
I'm committed to trying to address this problem for the long term. We should try to understand what scientific publishing might look like 10 years from now and think of ways whereby the community of physicists can play a leading role in shaping this future. Physicists have always taken advantage of new technologies to improve scientific communication. The world-wide web was invented by high energy physicists at CERN to communicate among particle physicists across the world. We, the theorists, invented the arXiv. The web and the arXiv have totally changed the way we disseminate scientific information. To some extent our journals haven't caught up to these innovations. I would like physics to take the lead within the scientific community to deal with this problem.
Q: Are there other key things beyond some of these programs you've already highlighted that you want members to know about the Strategic Plan?
A: When APS CEO Kate Kirby decided to launch the Strategic Plan process early last year, I did not believe that it would be completely ready to roll out at the leadership convocation this January. I am very impressed by the efforts at APS of the staff and the Board and all the committees who put in an incredible amount of work and completed the plan on schedule.
Many of the goals and plans contained in the strategic plan are kind of standard. We want to improve current operations and build on what APS has always been doing and doing well, to doing it even better. Given my limited time as President I will focus on implementing some of the newer initiatives. The whole plan is one for the next five to 10 years and it'll take some time to implement.
Q: We’ve already discussed that the changing journal publishing landscape presents a big challenge to APS. What are some other challenges you think are facing the organization in the next year or even five to 10 years?
A: APS is a membership organization that addresses the needs of science, especially physics, and especially our members. Our job at APS is to help our members deal with the challenges that our society faces. APS can amplify the voice of physicists in making informed decisions for society and informed decisions about support and management of science which is funded largely by society. There we have an enormously important role and that's not going to go away. In fact, it's become more important in the last few years. That's going to be an ongoing struggle. We probably need to do better. Always. I think we are learning how to advocate better.
APS has always played this role and continues to do that. We have all sorts of mechanisms to use our members and their knowledge and their expertise to advise the government, to advise Congress, to advise the science agencies. But this is not a good time. We are learning how precarious things can be. There are many, many, important issues facing our country and the world—issues that we are concerned about. We must continue to try to influence policies, ranging from very contentious issues ones like climate and the environment, to concerns about nuclear weapons, and finally to concerns that are more parochial regarding the scientific enterprise itself. We must continue to address these issues and advocate for rational solutions.
For more about APS President David Gross, see the Nobel Prize biographical page.
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Editor: David Voss
Staff Science Writer: Leah Poffenberger
Contributing Correspondent: Alaina G. Levine
Publication Designer and Production: Nancy Bennett-Karasik