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By S. James Gates, Jr.
President Joe Biden has presented the goals of his administration as (a) ensuring our nation's recovery from the pandemic, (b) putting our economy back on a sound footing, (c) confronting issues around diversity and inclusion, and (d) mitigating climate change. Remarkably, those four points in President Biden's agenda map rather well into what I wish to do during my term serving as APS president.
COVID: In complex systems, there is the concept of the "strange attractor" and in astronomy there is the "Great Attractor" of the Laniakea Supercluster. We are hopefully coming to the end of a period that we might call the "Great Disruptor," namely the COVID-19 pandemic. As we look to the coming year, we as a community need to plan for the future and leverage what we have learned from this experience.
Some of my colleagues who do laboratory research have adroitly transitioned to remote work with increases in ease and efficiency. But limited access to observational and laboratory facilities has been a debilitating factor for many physicists. As a university instructor in my 50th consecutive year in the classroom, I don't expect education to return completely to what was conventional beforehand. In teaching students online, I have learned things that I cannot do in a real world classroom and a number of us have had this experience.
Sylvester James Gates, Jr.
Last year, beginning with the March Meeting, APS was forced to operate in a completely new virtual manner. The extraordinary process that enabled the APS leadership to cancel the March Meeting in real time was an amazing thing to witness. The Presidential Line, the Speaker of the Council, the Treasurer, and the Senior Management Team of our Society all performed at the highest level.
On the evening of February 29, 2020 at 9pm, all of the leaders met on a Zoom call to discuss whether we would hold our planned meeting in Denver. All of the relevant factors were discussed: the late breaking news on international developments, reports on the trajectory of the international spread, and the highest regard for the health of APS members and the host community. In the end, it was the data and the science that drove this difficult decision, which avoided a "super-spreader" (a word then unknown) event and saved lives.
This year, we had our Annual Leadership Meeting online and it was a very active and exciting conference. Going forward, how do we find the right balance between pre-pandemic and post-pandemic procedures?
The economy: As a community, we have to confront changes to the economic resources that traditionally have supported physics. What will be the priorities of the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy? What will be the state of philanthropy? The Society will continue to strongly advocate for the funding that supports the physics enterprise in all of its dimensions.
Our colleges and universities are struggling during this dire pandemic. We had an entire session at the Annual Leadership Meeting dedicated to the kinds of challenges that our academic members face because a large percentage are within the university environment. More broadly, much will have to be done for members outside academia as well.
And for APS and the economic challenges we face, how do we find the sweet spot to ensure a financially sustainable model amid changes in journal publishing and virtual meetings? I will work with the Treasurer and the experts on the APS Senior Management Team to ensure that we go forward as a viable organization.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion: In 2019 the new APS Strategic Plan was presented. This document put front and center our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. In a sense, we were ahead of the curve, whereas later the country as a whole only started really debating this issue with, first, the tragic and horrible deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and so many others. Then, the massive protests that took place afterward around the country were manifestations of an apparent awakening.
In response, APS has been having a series of webinars that we have called DELTA PHY (“change physics”) to bring these issues to our membership. These are archived on the APS website; you can view the recordings and see the sorts of topics we are tackling in the webinars.
I will work for our Society to remain ahead of the curve. On diversity, equity, and inclusion, I want our Society to be an example to all STEM societies.
Climate change: Here, I don’t mean Father Time and Mother Nature and global warming per se, but instead the cultural climate of the physics community. I will challenge us to improve the climate of our community, specifically with regard to several concerns I have.
Diversity is one of them. But what about the issue of ethics? There persist disturbing stories about scientists who have not been transparent about funding sources. Conflicts of interest and commitment seem to abound. Our government is increasingly concerned about undue influence and deleterious impact on our national security and our economy. Although I believe we are seeing overenthusiastic steps being taken, our government does have a point about foreign influence, and we can't dismiss it.
Lack of transparency runs counter to the norms and practices of scientific culture. What can we as a Society do to support our own values? APS has begun formulating a path toward establishing higher ethical standards as well as initiated discussions on how to hold transgressors of these norms accountable.
And there is simply the issue of how we treat each other—are we respectful of one another? Those of us who are physicists need to respect our colleagues who are not faculty members and who are not researchers. Do we hold our colleagues in respect?
Do our cultural norms enable or inhibit the effective communication of our science to nonscientists? The public investment in physics from pure theory to experiment and observation all the way to practical applications is dependent on our ability to share our stories.
These are all issues rooted in our culture, and I am hopeful that the DELTA PHY model, which so far has been applied to diversity, equity, and inclusion, can be broadened to become a community common where we can collaboratively and intentionally engage these questions: What is our culture? How is this culture compatible with our values?
Climate change, in this sense, is something I want to address during my term as APS president. I have no illusions that I will complete this work, but I do have the hope of establishing these four points as sustainable, dedicated actions that we will take to improve our community.
The author is 2021 APS President. He is currently the Ford Foundation Physics Professor, Affiliate Mathematics Professor at Brown University, and Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs Faculty Fellow. Gates received the 2011 National Medal of Science, with a citation reading, “For his contribution to the mathematics of supersymmetry in particle, field, and string theories and his extraordinary efforts to engage the public on the beauty and wonder of fundamental physics.” In 2013, he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences and later elected to the council of the NAS. Currently, he remains an active researcher at the boundary of mathematics and physics. This article is adapted from his presentation at the 2021 APS Annual Leadership Meeting.
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Staff Science Writer: Leah Poffenberger
Contributing Correspondents: Sophia Chen, Alaina G. Levine