Navigating Challenges in a Rapidly Changing World

By Myriam Sarachik

We live in interesting and challenging times. Although this statement has been made by many throughout history, it seems truer than ever right now. There are many changes occurring that affect our present and our future in physics, and in science more generally. The American Physical Society is facing an interesting set of challenges that require the Society to continue to be nimble, fleet-footed, and proactive. In the space below, I will single out a few areas that require our attention and focus.


There have been tremendous changes during the past several years in the area of publications. Under the strong leadership of our Editor-in-Chief Marty Blume and treasurer, Tom McIlrath, APS has done a remarkable job of integrating new technology, online publication, cross-linking and archiving through PROLA.

APS leads the physics community in providing electronic information services, and currently occupies a truly dominant position among physics journals throughout the world.

So we're ahead. But this is an area where things are moving extremely fast. There are a number of very important challenges that need to be recognized and addressed if we're to stay ahead.

The most immediate problem flows from our enormous success. The number of manuscripts submitted to the APS journals, with more than half arriving from outside the US, has increased substantially over the years; APS has handled the influx through streamlining its operations (becoming leaner and meaner) and by hiring more editors. However, recent data indicate that the pace of article submissions is increasing sharply.

The editors of the APS journals work very hard, and have little time to maneuver. "Problem" papers occupy much of their attention, leaving little time for more straightforward papers. With the sharp increase in submissions, the workload may become unmanageable. How do we respond to this challenge? Do we continue to hire more and more editors? Do we alter our policies to accommodate the increased demand? If so, how?

Another major question concerns the future role of journals. The preprint archive introduced by Paul Ginsparg in 1991 has changed the publishing landscape in very major ways.

In some fields, notably High Energy Physics and Condensed Matter Physics, the eprint archive has become a major forum for dissemination of results. The communication is "instant" and there are no referees. Other fields of physics are sure to follow.

The recent Loken II report suggests that the distribution of information will be handled in the future entirely through preprint servers, and the value added by APS will be in the form of refereeing, collections of significant reprints, reviews and similar activities.

Is this likely to happen? If so, what will be the role of APS journals? Should we consider novel methods of distributing information that are tailored to individual readers' interests? Should APS take a closer look at how refereeing is done in various subfields with an eye to maximizing the effectiveness, reliability, and "customer" satisfaction of peer review? Should we expand our activities in the area of review articles and critical commentary?

Another challenge is posed by the movement, spearheaded by Harold Varmus and others, toward open access publication as exemplified by the Public Library of Science initiative. In this funding scheme, authors pay a fee for each article submitted and the term "open access" refers to free access by anyone who wants to read the article after publication.

It should be noted, however, that APS now provides open access—it provides it to authors. The real issue is "who pays" for publications. And surely, someone must pay. We need to carefully examine different funding schemes, and we must be ready to move quickly and decisively as the landscape changes. Publishing is a very major activity for the Society. It is a critical issue that may well determine the future form of APS and its activities.


This is a very serious problem that is impeding our ability to enroll graduate students at our universities; new data are now available that show that 2004 applications are sharply down from a year ago. The difficulty of obtaining visas in a timely way is wreaking havoc with international collaborations and with our ability to participate in international science.

IUPAP has recently approved a resolution to withhold sponsorship of international conferences held in the US if the situation on visas does not improve. We all know that physics is an international activity, and its "globalization" has been on-going for many years. Even those of us who have collaborated over the years with individual scientists abroad are finding that many of our friends are no longer willing to come for their usual collaborative visits.

Obtaining visas has become expensive, time-consuming and often very demeaning. Through its Office of International Affairs, the Washington office and in concert with other societies such as NAS, ACS, FASEB, and AAAS, APS is working very hard to improve the situation.

Helen Quinn, the APS President for 2004, has taken an active role in this very tough problem. There appears to be an increasing and broader awareness of the damage that this is doing, but it will take some time to fix. We can only hope that the problem regarding visas will be ameliorated quickly enough to avoid serious and irreversible damage to American science.


The prospect for adequate funding for science in the next few years is discouraging. As you know, this derives from the fact that discretionary spending, which is always a small portion of the total budget, is expected to decrease sharply due to the war in Iraq, and due to tax cuts proposed by the current Administration and passed by Congress during the past several years.

We will have to work very hard through lobbying, communications and outreach activities to explain to the public and its representatives that supporting science is in the interest of the nation's economic health and viability, our standard of living, our security, and our strong position in the world.

We will need intensive and effective lobbying efforts to stem or reverse the decline in funding for the sciences. We need to join together with each other, with industry, and with other scientific societies to make the strongest possible case.

Under the direction of Michael Lubell, the APS Washington office has been remarkably effective in making our voice heard. Resulting from efforts of the Washington office, there has been a substantial increase in the number of APS members who act on behalf of science through letter-writing campaigns and visits to Capitol Hill. It is important that many more of us join in these efforts so that we are seen as a political constituency that makes a difference.

Other Programs

APS is engaged in a number of other activities. These include programs to provide new tools and methods for the teachers who teach our high school students, networking with industry, and various activities to insure the health of our profession, such as increasing the participation of women and of minorities.

CSWP (the Committee on the Status of Women in Physics) was established in 1972, ostensibly on a temporary basis. It has continued to exist as one of the strongest and most active APS committees. Although there is clearly much work left to be done, there is little doubt that conditions for women in physics are substantially better than they were when I entered the field many years ago.

I believe that APS must substantially increase efforts to increase the participation of our minority populations. At the time I entered the field, physicists were almost all white and male. With the passing years, more women earned Bachelor's degrees and PhD's, and it has been very gratifying to find more women at our conferences reporting on their work, and becoming increasingly visible in high-level positions. We must continue to improve the climate for women in physics and continue to attract them to do physics.

It is important that APS now devote serious attention to diversifying further by encouraging African Americans, Hispanics, and all others to join our ranks.

Given the rapidly changing demography in the US, and our need to attract more students to study physics, this is in our own interest as well as theirs.

The American Physical Society must accept this challenge and devote serious attention to it. This will require that we explore ways to accomplish the goal which may entail new programs and new directions. This is a major, very important challenge for APS in the coming years.

And now, for some personal comments. I would be truly remiss if I neglected to tell you what a privilege it was to serve as President of the American Physical Society during the past year, and to lead and participate in the entire range of activities of the Society. It was particularly satisfying to be given the opportunity to represent APS on the international scene. Following an extended trip to Taiwan and Hong Kong early in the year, I opened a conference in Physics Education in Havana in July, gave the closing address at the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Spanish Royal Physics Society in Madrid during the same week, traveled to Dresden, Trieste, and represented APS at the Canadian-American-Mexican conference organized by graduate students from all three countries in the fall. These occasions provided opportunities to promote human rights and freedom of expression for scientists, and to urge that science and our contacts with physicists throughout the world be used to transcend national boundaries and to serve as bridges in a world that is in great turmoil.

Given my checkered past as a WW II refugee who traveled widely during my early years, my knowledge of languages (such as Spanish and French, in which I have an early teenage vocabulary but a near-flawless accent) was particularly useful in my role as ambassador for American science and the American Physical Society.

And by no means least of all, my presence as a woman President of APS had an effect that surprised even me in its intensity—it truly galvanized the women in physics in every country I traveled in.

The women asked to meet with me, arranged special sessions, took me to lunch and/or dinner. They were proud of me, and thereby, took pride in themselves. My successor and current President is Helen Quinn. The two of us, back-to-back woman Presidents of APS, represent a singularity in the history of our Society. To summarize, APS is an exceptionally effective organization that engages in a broad range of activities in the service of the physics community.

I believe that its strength derives from the fact that, unlike some other sister societies, it is run at every level by physicists. It relies on volunteers who commit a great deal of energy and time. It is guided by an excellent staff headed by physicists—Judy Franz, Marty Blume and Tom McIlrath, and it is led by a Presidential line and a Council of physicists elected by the membership.

APS has served the community well. We're heading for choppy waters, and we face a set of interesting challenges in the future. We need to examine how we publish our journals, and what role our journals will have in the future. We must do what we can regarding current visa requirements that are stifling American science. We must do our utmost to convince the public and our government that funding science is an urgent priority to insure the nation's future. It is essential that we increase the participation of minorities in physics and the sciences. We must reverse the decline in the number of students who choose physics. This is particularly crucial in light of the decrease in the number of students coming to us from abroad.

Working together, we can make progress in all these areas. There are interesting times ahead!

Myriam P. Sarachik, Distinguished City University professor of Physics at City College of New York, was President of APS in 2003. This article is adapted from her retiring presidential address at the APS April Meeting.

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