Statement from the Incoming Forum Chair

Don Prosnitz,

As we move into calendar year 2009 it may be a bit presumptuous to state that the need for an informed public debate on science policies has never been greater, but only a bit. Climate change and energy policy, stem cell research, technologies for a sustainable environment, nanotechnology risks, the use of advanced technology by terrorists, surveillance technology and privacy, the value of big (global) basic research projects, science education, and the role of science and technology in economic growth are just a few of the issues that must be addressed. Fortunately, the opportunity for thoughtful debate in front of a receptive audience may also never have been greater.

President Obama stated in his Inaugural address that

“We’ll restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age.”

We can be optimistic that these are more than just words. The stimulus package just signed provides $21.5B for research and development. The 2009 budgets appear to have increases for the science agencies and in a recent directive from the White House on scientific integrity President Obama stated

“Science and the scientific process must inform and guide decisions of my Administration on a wide range of issues… The public must be able to trust the science and scientific process informing public policy decisions.”

So what does this mean for physicists and the Forum on Physics and Society? Recently I spent a day visiting Congressional offices with 50 or so other members of the American Physical Society. We went to thank members of Congress for their support and to discuss the value of scientific research in the context of the current economic crisis. We heard from several offices that we needed to better articulate “our successes”—what they were, why they were important and why, for example, it might be more important to fund basic research than water projects when areas of the country are facing drought. We need to work harder to explain the benefits of what we do— to make certain our successes (and failures) and the implications of those successes (and failures) are known and understood.

The Forum on Physics and Society needs to redouble its efforts to be a “forum” for discussion and open debate of the scientific issues facing our society and to provide thoughtful, understandable, technically sound information to the public on these issues. Society must believe that its resources are being well spent and that the scientific community is cognizant of the implications of its research. The Forum’s principal means for communication are the annual meetings and our newsletter. Over the next year, we would like to engage a broader community in these activities. For example, it is not generally known that all Forum sessions are open to the public, free of charge. We are working with APS/HQ and the conference managers to advertise this fact and entice the public to attend our April panels. We would also like to explore the possibility of using available web applications (blogs, facebook presence…) to extend thoughtful, professional discussion of topics presented in our newsletter to a greater community of interest. Our new assistant editor, Jonathan Wurtele, will be taking on this project. I encourage all FPS members to send in suggestions as to how we can enhance our outreach and promote greater engagement with members of the public to Jonathan at

Finally I want to thank Andrew Zwicker, last year’s FPS chair, for his tireless efforts on behalf of the Forum and for guiding us through some very difficult issues. I look forward to the coming year and hope many of you will actively participate in the activities of the Forum.

This contribution has not been peer refereed. It represents solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of APS.