APS-IDEA: Transforming the Culture of Physics

Author: The APS-IDEA Steering Committee [1]

The APS Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity Alliance (APS-IDEA) is a new, community-wide effort of physics organizations (including physics departments, national labs, and research collaborations) to shift the culture of physics to be more equitable and inclusive. APS-IDEA’s guiding principles are based on current research on how to create effective change and the network is being driven by overwhelming interest from the community. APS President S. James Gates, Jr. recently commented that, “On diversity, equity, and inclusion, I want our Society to be an example to all STEM societies” [2].

Numerous recent reports have identified how the culture of physics contributes to a persistent lack of diversity and a problematic lack of equity in physics, including: Task Force to Elevate African American Representation in Undergraduate Physics and Astronomy (TEAM-UP) report (2020) [3], Women in Physics and Astronomy report (2019) [4], LGBT Climate in Physics report (2016) [5], Access for All: A Guide to Disability Good Practice for University Physics Departments report (2008) [6], among several others.

Underrepresented group members are too often targeted because of their identities; they are told they don’t belong in subtle and overt ways, they face sexual and/or other identity-based harassment, and their presence is not planned for in our community. These negative experiences lead people from traditionally underrepresented groups to leave physics resulting in a homogenous community.

APS IDEA banner

As a response to these concerns, in 2019 APS-IDEA was formed through support from the APS Innovation Fund (and, recently, through an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation grant) and, in summer 2020, APS-IDEA established a network of nearly 100 physics organizations [7] (vastly exceeding our original target of 25 organizations!) who are interested in changing the cultures of physics through strategic, evidence-based change efforts. Participating teams represent nearly 1,500 individuals at organizations from North and South America, Europe, Africa, and Australia, including universities that are public and private, large and small, predominantly undergraduate and research-intensive PhD-granting, as well as multi-institution research collaborations and national labs.

Kick-off workshops in summer 2020 (focused on shared leadership, defined below) were followed by a two-day workshop in September 2020 (focused on theories of change) and another full day workshop in February 2021 (focused on providing resources that teams themselves identified a need for). Further, since October 2020, teams have been organized into 21 different “Online Learning Communities” (OLCs) who meet in smaller groups to support one another and report on their progress towards their goals, with help from a team of external facilitators.

APS-IDEA’s four guiding principles are to: center people whose identities are marginalized, utilize sensemaking, start with research-based change-management methods, and use shared leadership. It is common for the physics community to center (i.e., expect, consider the needs of, plan for, and presume normal) white, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied men. In APS-IDEA, we intentionally plan for, expect, and include people whose identities have typically not been planned for. One way we enact this principle is by ensuring our steering committee and advisory board include people with different identities and from varied backgrounds to share in the decision-making process. We also plan for and expect people from different social identities, backgrounds, and positions to participate in the network.

Sensemaking refers to the stories we tell ourselves and each other to make sense of and interpret our experiences. In APS-IDEA, sensemaking means that we work to understand the current culture of physics, ways in which it is problematic, and each of our roles in reinforcing or changing this culture. For example, within the steering committee, we intentionally make space and time for members to critically reflect on these questions in order to foster a shared vision by which we take steps to move toward being more inclusive, equitable, and diverse.

APS-IDEA starts with the recognition that individuals, organizations, the physics profession, and society at large all influence a department’s culture and diversity. And, in order to make substantial and sustainable change, we must draw upon research-based theories to guide our thinking and areas of emphasis. The aim of the network is to change the culture of physics to be more inclusive by creating a community of transformation [8,9].

Shared leadership is the sharing of power and decision-making among people from different social identities (e.g., race/ethnicity, gender, ability status) and positions within the community (e.g., students, faculty, postdocs) [10]. We encourage teams to enact shared leadership by ensuring each team includes stakeholders from all groups in their organizations. For example, we asked teams from research-intensive, PhD-granting institutions to include undergraduate and graduate students, postdoctoral scholars, early career faculty, senior faculty, staff, etc. But shared leadership goes beyond merely who is in the room where decisions are made and also includes paying attention to who feels empowered to voice their opinions and who is part of the decision-making process.

APS-IDEA is one of many initiatives aimed at addressing the lack of diversity in physics and its problematic culture. We seek to support the success of these efforts by connecting them with APS-IDEA teams. Several notably important efforts include:

We strongly encourage every member of the physics community to become involved in efforts to change physics culture, through the APS-IDEA and other initiatives. Change efforts will be different across organizations because effective change needs to be reflective of local organizational cultures, norms, and practices. For example, if we compare a primarily undergraduate institution with a national research laboratory, the stakeholders, organizational priorities, and power structures would be different; effective change efforts need to be reflective of these differences. One size does not fit all when it comes to making sustained cultural change. To get started, here are steps an individual can take:

  • Determine if your organization is a member of APS-IDEA [7] and, if so, get involved in your team’s activities.
  • Join the APS-IDEA mailing list.
  • Read the reports listed above and implement their suggestions.
  • Learn about and implement shared leadership in your organization.
  • Establish equitable institutional cultures, norms, and practices that ensure the success of colleagues from marginalized groups.

The APS-IDEA Steering Committee has received interest and commitment from the community that far exceeded our initial hopes, and the project was recently awarded an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Grant to support the network’s activities in the coming year. We believe this presents a significant opportunity to meaningfully change the culture of physics if we, as a community, persist in our efforts to challenge established norms that marginalize individuals and prevent more equitable cultures from flourishing.

IF logoThis project is funded (in part) by the American Physical Society (APS) Innovation Fund through Award IF-3. The American Physical Society (APS) Innovation Fund provides funding to advance collaborative projects that support the APS mission "to advance and diffuse the knowledge of physics for the benefit of humanity, promote physics, and service the broader physics community." Visit APS.org and follow @APSphysics.

This project is also funded (in part) through the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Grant No. G-2021-16867.


  1. Current membership of the APS-IDEA Steering Committee includes (in alphabetical order): Edmund Bertschinger, MIT; Erika Brown, APS; Jessica Esquivel, Fermilab; Michelle Lollie, Louisiana State University; Jesús Pando, DePaul University; Monica Plisch, APS; Geoff Potvin, Florida International University; Edward Price, CSU San Marcos; William Ratcliff II, University of Maryland, College Park; Erin Scanlon, University of Connecticut; LaNell A. Williams, Harvard University, completed her term as a Steering Committee member in May 2021.
  2. Gates, Jr., S. J. (2021). My Goals for the American Physical Society. APS News, 30(3).
  3. The AIP National Task Force to Elevate African American Representation in Undergraduate Physics & Astronomy (TEAM-UP). (2020). THE TIME IS NOW: Systemic Changes to Increase African Americans with Bachelor’s Degrees in Physics and Astronomy. American Institute of Physics: College Park, MD.
  4. Porter, A. M. and Ivie, R. (2019). Women in Physics and Astronomy, 2019. American Institute of Physics: College Park, MD.
  5. Atherton, T. J., Barthelemy, R. S., Deconinck, W., Falk, M. L., Garmon, S., Long, E., Plisch, M., Simmons, E. H., and Reeves, K. (2016). LGBT Climate in Physics: Building an Inclusive Community. American Physical Society: College Park, MD.
  6. Institute of Physics. (2008). Access for All: A Guide to Disability Good Practice for University Physics Departments.
  7. www.aps.org/programs/innovation/fund/teams.cfm
  8. Adrianna Kezar, Sean Gehrke & Samantha Bernstein-Sierra (2018) Communities of Transformation: Creating Changes to Deeply Entrenched Issues, The Journal of Higher Education, 89:6, 832-864, DOI: 10.1080/00221546.2018.1441108
  9. Kezar, A., & Gehrke, S. (2015). Communities of Transformation and Their Work Scaling STEM Reform. Pullias Center for Higher Education. pullias.usc.edu/download/communities-of-transformation-and-their-work-scaling-stem-reform/
  10. Kezar, A. J., & Holcombe, E. M. (2017). Shared leadership in higher education. Washington, DC: American Council on Education. www.acenet.edu/Documents/Shared-Leadership-in-Higher-Education.pdf

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

September 2021 (Volume 30, Number 8)

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