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Physicist Andrea Liu is the 2020 APS Speaker of the Council of Representatives, a position that was created in 2015 as part of the changes to APS governance. The Speaker chairs the Council and sets the agenda for its meetings. Liu is the Hepburn Professor of Physics at the University of Pennsylvania and an APS Fellow. APS News spoke with Liu about the role of the Council and her priorities for the year.
What is your scientific background?
I'm a soft- and living-matter physicist with an interdisciplinary career history. My degrees are in physics but I was a postdoc in chemical engineering and materials science and then was on the chemistry faculty at UCLA for ten years before coming to the physics department at Penn.
I’ve noticed that physicists are far more worried about preserving the purity of their discipline than chemists or engineers. In my experience in chemistry, as long as something is interesting they don't care so much whether it deserves to be called "chemistry." In physics what matters is that problems are interesting, but in engineering it is important that there be a wider impact and it's possible to choose problems that satisfy both criteria.
Explain the role of the APS Council of Representatives
The Council is really what connects members to APS as an organization. It's basically the main conduit of communication between the membership units—the divisions, topical groups, forum, and sections—and APS governance and senior management. And it's also the way different units communicate with each other.
The effectiveness of APS is limited by the ability to communicate among the various diverse parts, and so the role of council is incredibly important. It involves communication from members to the Council, and from the Council to the APS Board of Directors, in both directions. We need to get input from members, through the units, up to the Council and then to the Board, staff and leadership.
But communication in the opposite direction is also important. Our members are not as well informed as they could be about all the great things that APS is doing and so they don’t take as much advantage of the Society programs as they could. I would say that communication is not one of the strongest points of the APS and this is something the last several Council Speakers have been working really hard to improve.
What are some ways to improve communication?
I think one way is to make Council meetings more engaging, so that councilors actually want to attend. They don’t want to just rubber-stamp things—they want to make a difference. They can do that by communicating to the Council what the units think and communicating back to the units what transpired at the meeting on important issues and challenges that face us.
That is where the Speaker can do something because as Speaker I set the agenda for the Council meeting. I’m trying to clear room on the schedule at the Council meeting for small group discussions on important issues.
I'm asking councilors to attend two hour-long virtual meetings before the council meeting to learn what is going on before the actual meeting. There are always presentations from various officers on important issues. We get reports from the CEO, the Editor in Chief, the Publisher, the Treasurer and so forth, and we could do some of those reports remotely before the Council meeting. We will also learn important background from committees and APS staff to prepare us for the small group discussions.
What do you see as your priorities for your term as Speaker?
There are three issues I'd like the Council to discuss. One is science policy. The Council has not been very active in gathering input for the APS Office of Government Affairs about what members think is important to focus on. I’d like to use the council meetings to do that and have councilors come to the meeting having already discussed with the unit leaders what the top priorities are, so that we can pass them up.
As part of this, in the virtual meeting beforehand, we will ask Francis Slakey, the Chief Government Affairs Officer, and Dan Dahlberg, the chair of the APS Panel on Public Affairs (POPA), to talk about the process for deciding which issues to focus on and which issues APS should make official statements about, so that the councilors can understand the process to provide more input.
The second thing I want to focus on is diversity, equity, and inclusion. There were two very distressing statistics recently, one having to do with the number of undergrad women in physics surveyed at the APS Conferences for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWiP) who reported having experienced some form of sexual harassment—it is about 75%. And the other is the recent TEAM-UP report from the American Institute of Physics showing that the percentage of African Americans earning bachelor's degrees in physics has dropped in the 20 years from 1995 to 2015 from 5% to under 4%. These are really disturbing numbers, and we need to think about how to do more. APS has really excellent activities directed at these issues that many of us aren't aware of.
So at one of the virtual meetings we’ll hear from APS Programs Director Monica Plisch about what the APS is doing—really interesting and important activities. And we'll ask if one of the TEAM-UP co-chairs, Mary James or Ed Bertschinger, could report on the results of that work. These will precede the more in-depth small group discusssions at the Council meeting.
The third thing is that I’d like the Council to discuss meetings. APS has established a task force to make recommendations on how to improve the APS March Meeting. Also, there’s a pet project of mine, to discuss the idea of APS running small virtual workshops. We're going to have to learn to meet and exchange scientific ideas in a sustainable way. We can't just keep jetting around everywhere. The technology is getting there and I'd like APS to figure out how to do this in a useful way.
Small virtual workshops could draw in industrial members who can’t afford the time to go to a five-day conference but could attend a half-day focused virtual workshop. It's a way to better involve our international members, especially ones that may have a hard time coming to the US due to visa or health issues. And we can involve younger members because the cost will be lower.
What else would you like members to know?
I mentioned this at the recent APS Annual Leadership Meeting, but I think many of our members feel vulnerable. Our early career members are worried about finding the right career path, and given the uncertainty of our times the stresses are higher than ever. And women and especially underrepresented minorities—why are there so many problems for us, why are there so few of us in physics after all these years, what's going on? They, along with our LGBTQ members are really worried by the backlash in society against diversity and civility, and whether it's going to affect them here in our community.
Our international members, especially those working here on temporary visas, are very nervous about their status and future prospects and whether they are welcome in this country. Industrial members are facing job insecurity and our members at government labs are facing more restrictions, continual budget pressure, and fears that their roles are not valued at all. Our members doing academic research are faced with increasingly inadequate and unreliable funding, with fluctuations that can end their research careers even when research is going well.
What I want our members to know is that APS has activities and programs designed to help with all of these issues. That's why APS is so important. I’ve been on the council for several years and I am still learning more about the APS all the time. The Society has a dedicated and terrific staff working to help us, so we members need to know about that, take advantage of it, and have a voice in helping APS become even more effective.
For more about APS activities, visit aps.org.
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Editor: David Voss
Staff Science Writer: Leah Poffenberger
Contributing Correspondent: Alaina G. Levine
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