APS Annual Leadership Meeting: Past President’s Address

Philip H. Bucksbaum

In an ordinary year, this address from the Just-Past President of APS would be delivered to the leadership at the dinner following a day of the leadership convocation meetings.

It would be traditional for me to say that I’m the only thing standing between you and dessert. Or something like that.

But this hasn’t been an ordinary year, has it? Not for me, and not for any of us.

One year ago, on Saturday morning, February 1, 2020 I stood before a live audience, including many of you leaders of the APS to deliver my “2020 Vision”.

I spoke about the honor and privilege of leading this special organization, and about the boundless opportunities we have as physicists to explore the universe and discover new knowledge.

I spoke about the need for APS to serve better the youngest members of our profession, our students, to see to it that they had every opportunity to succeed. The new APS Chapters are starting to address this need.

I also spoke about the challenges that science was facing.

About our collective shock when some of the highly respected members of our field were led away in handcuffs and accused of federal crimes in their conduct of research.

Philip Bucksbaum

Philip Bucksbaum

I spoke about the potential erosion in the public’s trust in us, the scientists, and even the public’s trust in the science itself.

I spoke about the culture of science, how the wonderful freedom we enjoy to pursue our own curiosity to advance scientific knowledge carries an obligation, and how we needed to rededicate ourselves to the highest ethical standards to earn back that public trust, and reinforce the core values called out in our own APS Strategic Plan. Council Speaker Andrea Liu and I even crafted the first draft of a Board Statement on that topic during that Leadership weekend last year.

And, those of you who were there, listened, and nodded, and applauded. Remember?

What were we thinking? We had no real vision of the 2020 we were about to face.

Where were you when the storm hit? For me, the weather changed on the Saturday morning only four weeks later, February 29, 2020 at 9:55 AM as I headed into a string quartet performance at Herbst Theater in San Francisco, and just before silencing my phone I got a curious email from someone I didn’t know at the Stanford Medical School.

It said, “You have to cancel the March Meeting.” I remember thinking, what is this? The March Meeting is only a day away. I was planning to head to Denver shortly myself.

About eight hours later, following a day of phone calls among the March Meeting Chairs, former APS CEO Kate Kirby and her senior management team, and the Board Executive Committee and amid news bulletins about the rapidly evolving public health crisis, we sat down on Zoom. As Jim Gates already recounted in his opening address (APS News, March 2021), we considered the science, and we recounted the news, and we weighed our options. And we pulled the plug on the March Meeting 2020. I never went to Denver, and probably neither did you.

For us, it was a heart-wrenching tragedy done to avert a still larger catastrophe. And it was the right move. I would do it again, I think we all would.

But of course, the larger catastrophe was not really averted anyway, not in the US nor in the world—it was just too large. And it’s still with us.

But then something happened that gave me great courage and great hope: Our community came together. Through spontaneous grass-roots efforts and with tireless help from APS Chief Information Officer Mark Doyle and APS staff running mostly on adrenaline, large blocks of the March meeting happened anyway, on-line.

And the APS meetings staff under Director of Meetings Hunter Clemens took that ball and ran with it, creating a virtual April Meeting, and a virtual DAMOP meeting, and much more. This virtual Leadership meeting, too.

Rather than move to Washington DC as my wife Roberta and I had planned to do this year, to enjoy a Stanford Spring term in Washington on special leave to focus on the work of my APS Presidential year, I was stuck at home as nearly all of us were. Well, that is, the fortunate ones.

Stuck at home, but I was busier than ever.

In frequent teleconferences and other communications to agencies and Congress and OSTP, we helped the government assess the harm done to the research community by the pandemic, and we advised on mitigation strategies to keep grad students and postdocs employed and grants running, even though labs were shut down.

When some other proclamations and orders came out of the previous administration that hurt our community, such as wrong-headed directives to close our borders or cancel visas to the students and postdocs who are vital to our work, policies that blamed the pandemic economic stress on foreign scientists stealing American jobs, of all things.

When that happened, we pushed back. And then I got to see again the real value of the APS members coming together.

We leaders wrote Presidential Letters and drafted Board Statements.

Our members made thousands—thousands—of contacts to their government representatives directly, in letters, phone calls, and even in op-ed articles.

We even led our fellow learned societies in the natural sciences to organize, to cosign briefs in support of court challenges.

In short, by coming together, we made our voices heard. I could not be prouder to be a member, and even more, to be an elected leader, of such an organization. Our APS Office of External Affairs led by Francis Slakey last year really stepped up their game, and the enthusiastic actions and much of the shoe leather came from you and the rest of the membership. Thank you for that.

In the summer of our pandemic distress, our dark days got still darker, as the country reacted in horror over the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others at the hands of police. This led to great introspection across the country. And as physicists and Americans, we can no longer ignore our own cultural blind spots, when the fraction of African Americans in physics is far less than in the general population, and the fraction in APS is even lower than that.

Soul searching is surely not enough. This was another call for our community to come together.

Here my successor Jim Gates came through with a brilliant leadership idea to start a new workshop initiative to change the climate in physics—DELTA PHY. At the same time, APS-IDEA took off, a grass-roots effort to share best practices among Physics Departments seeking diversity, equity, and inclusion. IDEA was seed funded by the APS Board through our Innovation Fund, an initiative of the Board that was made permanent this year.

This theme of coming together is so much a part of who we are as physicists and as an American Physical Society. Part of the genius of the APS election system is the strong cooperative spirit it generates among the leadership, and I have benefitted tremendously from the six APS Presidents who precede and succeed me: Laura Greene, Roger Falcone, David Gross, Jim Gates, Frances Hellman, and Bob Rosner. And the Council speakers during that time, especially Dan Kleppner, Tim Gay, John Rumble, Andrea Liu, and Baha Balantekin.

I am eternally grateful also to former APS CEO Kate Kirby and her fabulous senior management team. Kate’s tireless advice and good judgement has been crucial during my year. Kate’s retirement coincided with the end of my Presidential year, so the most important task I faced as President and leader of the APS Board was finding her replacement as CEO, a task made that much more difficult by the pandemic restrictions for travel and meetings. I couldn’t be more pleased with the appointment of Jon Bagger to the CEO position, and I know that APS remains in good hands. Here again, leaders in our community came together to undertake that search.

As we approach the 1-year anniversary of the March Meeting cancellation in 2020, there is much, much, left to do together.

2021 President Jim Gates has a strong vision, and his focus, the Cultural Climate of Physics, is so important for our future to regain and reinforce that public trust that we need. I know you share my enthusiasm and look forward to working with him.

The change in administrations in the White House has eliminated some of the stress in our community. For example, President Biden has announced his intention to renew the New Start Treaty with Russia, an important step towards reducing the threat of nuclear war, a very big concern in the physics community.

In addition, the head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy will sit at Cabinet level under President Biden, which will get science into the conversation in white house policy areas. It’s about time.

Another result is that we may have seen our last Presidential Annual Budget with double-digit decreases in science funding, something that was an annual occurrence in the past administration.

And at long last there may even be a light at the end of that long COVID tunnel, as vaccines roll out across the world.

But there is still much to do together.

Research security and unfair foreign competitors in science are still top concerns in the administration and Congress, and we must make sure that scientists are part of the policy discussions on how to respond without harming the international engagement that makes science work.

At the same time, science funding, and the state of STEM education in the US have renewed visibility as the lamp of scientific understanding leads the way out of the pandemic into a potential “New Sputnik Moment.”

So as I depart, I can’t help but feel energized. We have new leadership in the APS, new leadership in the country, new opportunities to support and broaden the physics community and promote its values to our nation and the world. Tomorrow, sessions will highlight some of those opportunities.

Best of all, BEST OF ALL, 2020 is now in the past. So let’s resolve to make the most of 2021 by working together for physics.

Thank you all for your tremendous support and help and work over the past year, and for the privilege of serving as your President.

I look forward to our meeting in person in the near future.

The author served as APS President in 2020.He holds the Marguerite Blake Wilbur Chair in Natural Science at Stanford University, with appointments in Physics, Applied Physics, and in Photon Science at SLAC. This article is adapted from his presentation at the 2021 APS Annual Leadership Meeting.

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Editor: David Voss
Staff Science Writer: Leah Poffenberger
Contributing Correspondents: Sophia Chen, Alaina G. Levine

April 2021 (Volume 30, Number 4)

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Taking Your Next Steps: From Physics Degree to Industry Career
April Meeting 2021 Promises Exciting Online Events
APS Sharpens Focus on Ethical Conduct in Physics
APS Legacy Circle Profile: Erol Oktay
Science Communicators Discuss Rebuilding Trust in Science
APS Members Advocate for Key Science Policy Issues During First-Ever Virtual CVD
The APS Division of Particles and Fields
Federal Policies to Strengthen Science
Physics Slam Showcases Research by Student and Early Career Award Recipients
APS Chapters Pilot Program Holds First All-Chapters Events
This Month in Physics History
Education and Diversity News
FYI: Science Policy News from AIP
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