APS News

March 2022 (Volume 31, Number 3)

Frances Hellman’s Presidential Address

As we enter the third year of this pandemic, I am sure you are as exhausted, frustrated, and yearning to reconnect with colleagues and friends as I am. My lab, like most others, got shut down when COVID came along. We’re grateful to be back now—vaccinated, boosted, and masked—but it’s been challenging for students who missed out on the crucial interactions that just can’t be recreated online, and consequently hard to get our research, and our teaching, done. We had every intention of holding this meeting in-person in Washington, DC with a virtual component. Unfortunately, the rapid spread of the Omicron variant required us to make the difficult decision to pivot to a completely virtual event.

In the past two years, we have learned a lot about virtual meetings—what works, and what doesn’t. And while they will never fully replace in-person gatherings, with their unique ability to spark new ideas and collaborations, we are working towards a hybrid approach that hopefully combines the best of both worlds. There’s no doubt that virtual meetings are more accessible to our colleagues around the world in a wide range of circumstances, from parents of small children to attendees with disabilities or those whose jobs or other responsibilities preclude traveling to a conference.

While COVID has affected nearly everything we do—and how we do it—what hasn't changed is the vision and strategic priorities we at APS developed long before the pandemic, which are outlined in the 2019 Strategic Plan. It’s a powerful and inspiring document that underlies everything we do. It’s remarkable how much progress we have made in just the last year, thanks in no small part to your unwavering service and dedication to the Society as well as that of our hardworking APS staff, my predecessor Jim Gates and our CEO Jon Bagger who will be my much needed and much valued partner in moving APS forward in 2022. The last few years have shown us the importance of “increasing organizational excellence” so we are better prepared for the next storm and in a strong place to support the evolving needs of the physics community.

Frances Hellman

Frances Hellman

The very first specific action in the 2019 Strategic Plan calls for us to embrace “diversity, inclusion, and equity.” This is a problem that has plagued our field from the very beginning, and still does, 60 years past the peak of the civil rights and women’s rights movements. The murder of George Floyd shook us to the core and sparked an overdue global reckoning with systemic racism. It implored us to translate our words into action, to dismantle the barriers that have led to a gross underrepresentation of minorities, particularly Black Americans, in physics. The advancement of science depends on a diversity of ideas and approaches to difficult problems, and demands that we try harder to address this pernicious problem.

It is in this spirit that my predecessor, Jim Gates, launched the DELTA-PHY initiative as a forum to “change the culture of physics.” Thank you, Jim, for your dedication to this cause and your gracious offer to help me continue this important work. The DELTA-PHY webinar series has brought our community together to discuss pressing issues at the intersection of physics and society. In the past two years, these focused on issues surrounding the indispensable contributions of immigrants to the US scientific enterprise; the negative impact of the US government’s current approach to research security; and several specific ideas of how to remove barriers to the success of underrepresented sectors of our physics community.

Bringing people together to focus attention on CHANGE dovetailed with efforts led by our Government Affairs office and led to some real wins this past year. APS members in partnership with our Government Affairs office have worked tirelessly to push for reform of the US Department of Justice’s egregious China Initiative, which has had a chilling effect on researchers from both countries. We are encouraged by the government’s recent actions in this area that align with APS’s recommendations. Furthermore, the National Science and Technology Council recently issued a memorandum regarding guidance on presidential memorandum NSPM-33 which deals with potential transgressions of conflict of interest or conflict of commitment. We are optimistic that this memo points the way to a more appropriate use of the judicial system to address criminal matters but leaves the scientific community and the federal science funding agencies to address non-criminal scientific transgressions.

And, this all points to the broader issue of ethical conduct in physics. While physics has for a long time had ethical standards around publishing and credit, it only relatively recently became clear that a more comprehensive standard of ethical conduct was needed. In the early 2000’s, and again in 2020, APS surveyed its members and it came to light just how rampant harassment is in physics—particularly disturbing are recent surveys in which the incidents reported by young women physicists have affected their lives and careers. Responding to issues raised by our community, and our desire to be a more inclusive, ethical, and effective organization that supports our physics community, the APS Ethics committee established working groups focused on research integrity and ethics education, which led to revisions to our Guidelines on Ethics to address enablers of misconduct, the code of conduct for meetings, and conflicts of interest and commitment. Since then the Ethics Committee has introduced a revocation policy for APS prizes, awards and leadership positions and is working hard to educate the community on ethical practices. We anticipate further actions in the upcoming year as these policies and practices are implemented.

Another important priority for 2022 is centered on Global Science, a priority outlined in the 2019 strategic plan, but more relevant now than ever. We’re called the American Physical Society, but we’re in fact an international organization. Approximately 25% of our members live and work outside of the United States. 70% of APS journal articles with a US lead author have an international co-author. Global science challenges are all around us, from gravitational wave science to climate change. Equity and inclusion is an internationally relevant subject that limits all of us. Science thrives when people and ideas are free to flow across borders. International collaborations—both small and large—are essential to the advancement of physics and are our best chance to address the grand challenges before us. But recent survey data of APS members working in academia and the national labs show that they are withdrawing from collaborations with their colleagues abroad at an alarming rate. 1 in 4 report that they have either chosen to withdraw or been directed to withdraw from professional activities with colleagues outside the United States due to current research security policies. The best and brightest minds in the world no longer see the United States as a welcoming environment in which to build their careers, and many are taking their talents to other countries. This threatens our ability to do great science and APS is committed to addressing this threat.

In addition to the work previously described to reduce the US government overreach in the area of research security, in 2022, APS will be working with its sibling physics societies around the world to establish a set of agreed-to “rules of the road” for research and collaboration and, to quote a very recent (1/28/22) National Science Board report, to find ways to “[strengthen] international collaborations and engagements” and “responsibly foster open exchanges of ideas and people across fields, public and private sectors, and borders”, thereby becoming “a hub of the worldwide science and engineering talent flow”. Notably, we received a key endorsement from the IUPAP General Assembly to seek the recognition of 2025 as the International Year of Quantum by the United Nations, an effort to make the importance of both the science and technology represented by APS be visible to and valued by the public. Last year APS convened its inaugural International Young Leaders Forum, which brought together early career physicists from 22 countries and six continents. We’ve also continued to engage with physicists in China, Africa, and India to identify and address challenges and opportunities facing our colleagues in these countries.

I want now to say a few words about our outstanding portfolio of scientific publications. The Physical Review journals are our jewels, among the best in the world. But their prominence and sustainability is threatened by external forces, including fierce competition, open access mandates, and disruptive technologies. Our current operating structure is a hindrance to their continued growth and success. The changes to the governance of APS publishing under consideration by the APS Board and Council—which preserves scientific oversight but creates a more robust operational structure—are our best shot at ensuring that our journals will be able to continue to serve the scientific community for many years to come.

Returning to the 2019 Strategic Plan, I note the pillar of “Serving Members, the Physics Community, and Society,” which calls on APS to better support what you might call the “whole physicist.” In addition to the inclusion and ethics issues previously touched on, we are re-committing to being the professional home for anyone engaged in physics or who considers themselves a physicist, regardless of whether they’re working in industry, academia, a national laboratory, or a science museum, whether teaching or research or science outreach to the public is their primary mission, and whether they conduct fundamental or applied research.

Our commitment to the next generation of physicists is vital to our mission and vision. Through its various education and outreach programs, as well as through several of its units, APS works to ensure that up-and-coming scientists are supported at every stage of their careers, starting as early as grade school. The only reason I started down the path of physics is that I had an amazing high school physics teacher. We spent our time learning about general relativity, how the universe began, and black holes, and even more importantly, we were encouraged to be creative and experimental in our thinking about these topics. Of course, that meant when I got to college I struggled in my introductory physics courses because I had not learned the basics, like springs. I found freshman physics both hard and boring, a bad combination, but my undergrad advisor helped me get caught up, so I eventually was able to get back to studying what to me was the exciting stuff: black holes, galaxies, quantum mechanics, superconductors. He told me years later that he recognized that I had a knack for physics, just needed some help getting started, a message I try to act on both with my own students and as APS president in support of our education and outreach programs.

That is just one example of how an exceptional high school teacher can set the course for one student’s life’s work. The Physics Teacher Education Coalition (PhysTEC), a joint project of APS and the American Association of Physics Teachers, has been addressing the nation’s teacher shortage for more than 20 years. PhysTEC has helped over 60 US colleges and universities prepare new, qualified physics teachers to educate the next generation of STEM professionals and informed citizens. This past year, APS introduced middle and high school students to quantum science and technology by partnering to distribute PhysicsQuest kits and hosting a Quantum Crossing career event. These are just examples of the portfolio of education and outreach programs led by APS, and an important priority for the upcoming year is to develop a strategic plan for these, including their financial support. I’ve made developing a culture of philanthropy a priority for my presidential year, another specific action noted in the 2019 Strategic Plan. APS is in a strong financial position but we need to make sure that we diversify our sources of revenue.

Finally, I want to end by noting the continuing importance of ensuring that the public and our government appreciate the importance of the work we do and continue to support this work. This is an exciting time to be part of APS. There are challenges ahead, but we are well-positioned to tackle them. I strongly encourage you to review the Strategic Plan, to consider a financial contribution to support our mission, and to contribute your talents to helping us achieve our ambitious vision for the future of physics: A physics that is welcoming, diverse, and supportive. A physics that is ready, willing, and able to meet the needs of our Society, the scientific community, and the world, and to inspire us with its insights into how the universe works.

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March 2022 (Volume 31, Number 3)

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Articles in this Issue
Governance Changes Bolster APS’s World-Renowned Journals
April Meeting: From Quarks to Cosmos via New York
Physicists Address Global Challenges at Leadership Meeting
American Physical Society Takes On Scientific Misinformation
Frances Hellman’s Presidential Address
To Touch the Sun
APS Membership Unit Profile: The Forum on Diversity and Inclusion
The 2022 APS Medal and Society Prize Ceremony
This Month in Physics History
News from Government Affairs
FYI: Science Policy News From AIP
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