APS Annual Leadership Meeting: Past President’s Address

By S. James Gates, Jr.

Good evening. I’d like to begin by thanking the cohort of individuals with whom I’ve worked during the past three years as a member of the APS Presidential Line. These are people from whom I’ve learned, leaned on, been advised by, and I am very proud to call these colleagues, but most of all, friends.

These include members of the APS Presidential Line, Past & Present: David Gross, Phil Bucksbaum, Frances Hellman, and Bob Rosner; Board & Council Colleagues, with special mention of Past & Present Council Speakers: Jim Hollenhorst, John Rumble, Andrea Liu, Baha Balantekin, and Robin Selinger; and APS Corporate Leadership: Kate Kirby who retired at the end of 2020, Jonathan Bagger (current APS CEO), members of the Senior Leadership Team, and others. This latter number of people is so large I must beg for forgiveness. Sincerely, this is not out of a lack of recognition, appreciation and truly enormous sense of gratitude, but I would forget to call out the name of some so richly deserving APS contributors to the success (I hope) of my presidential administration.

Perhaps, to be added, I am acutely aware that leaders rarely have the luxury of choosing the times of their service, but times always have the demand to choose the service of leaders. My election as Vice President set my service clock in this domain. I had no idea then what would be demanded during times of a national re-awakening about the reality of racial relations, a governmental trajectory threatening the foundations of our discipline, a once-a-century pandemic, and an unexpected acceleration of debilitating trends in the US cultural, societal, and political atmospheres. I have frequently heard the remark that, “APS has been passing through the most turbulent times since the 1960’s!”

I started my APS Presidential year by stating: For an individual, it has been said that character is destiny. For an organization, perhaps it can be said that culture is destiny. Culture and values are tightly linked. Commitment to living the APS Values—the scientific method; truth and integrity; diversity, inclusion, and respect; partnering, cooperation, and open collaboration; speaking out; education and learning—has guided me, and the organization, through a particularly challenging year.

S. James Gates Jr. photo

S. James Gates, Jr.

Long ago, I concluded APS is the vessel in which the culture of the discipline is forged. During these times, my administrative goals have been to use deliberation, dedication to an absolute commitment to hard-work, a high regard for excellence, past experience, probity, knowledge of history, and my decades-long observations of the culture of physicists as guide-stars to formulate policies and promulgate best practices that align with our 2019 Strategic Plan. As part of this, consideration of necessary transformations must be on the radar.

Change, however, is never easy.

A look at the letters sent by APS leadership in 2021 reveals the time of my service saw more communications with the Federal Government and the public, by 40% over comparable periods of time for such past activities. The diversity of these communications can be garnered from those directed to the US President’s Science Advisor, Department of Defense, the Department of Justice, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (these latter two most unexpectedly), the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, the US Congress, and most certainly our membership and the public. One of the most unusual experiences that occurred was appreciating that APS acquired the capacity and knowledge basis to file a lawsuit.

All of this was in addition to the conceptualization, inauguration, and implementation of the DELTA-PHY (“change physics”) initiative. The initiative was launched as an effort for APS to permanently create a structure to deliberate upon and, if needed, move to transform its culture in a conscious manner. It does this by asking three key questions:

  1. What are the values of APS?
  2. Aside from producing world-class physics, what data exists on the inputs, outputs, practices, and traditions of APS?
  3. Do answers to these two questions align and are they in alignment with the APS 2019 Strategic Plan?

DELTA-PHY activities are envisioned to be timely and cutting across the Society's “stove pipes” of organizational structures (divisions, fora, units, etc.). They are a designated “APS Commons” and a lever for the Society-wide conscious initiation and management of its culture and curate its transformational culture change. Perhaps a bit surprisingly, DELTA-PHY has reinforced APS efforts beyond its internal structure. Anyone who attended the Partnering on Research Security session heard encouraging comments from the FBI that we are moving in the right direction.

On two critical issues—research security and the treatment of scientists of Asian descent—DELTA-PHY allowed APS to share with members what APS stands for; what APS is doing on their behalf; and gather feedback directly from the community. It enabled us to do all of this in a transparent way. It can be a tool/platform that APS Government Affairs will continue to use for years to come.

Another highlight from this year includes a number of APS's top science policy priorities in the science and innovation legislative packages from the House (e.g. NSF for the Future, DOE for the Future, NIST for the Future) and Senate (United States Innovation and Competition Act; note that APS doesn't have a position on USICA).

In addition to the increased authorization levels, these legislative packages include policy provisions aimed at: ending sexual harassment in STEM, broadening participation in STEM through research partnerships with Emerging Research Institutions, and addressing the liquid helium crisis.

In my inaugural presidential speech (see APS News, March 2021: My Goals for the American Physical Society), I called for 2021 to be a year dedicated to answering a series of questions brought to the foreground by the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has provided us with an opportunity to change our culture consciously and intentionally along several axes.

We’ve increased APS’s capacity to foster more effective communication to our community, through our meetings, for example. I am participating in our third Annual Leadership Meeting and I hope all who are doing so will spread the word of your experiences in this meeting. I also hope participants will advocate to fellow APS members to join future APS meetings. We are improving and executing virtual meetings with a global reach. APS is already a global entity. One of the statistics that is indicative and was recently revealed is that a very high percentage of articles published in our journals involve international collaborations. The advantages of an enhanced schedule of virtual meetings are obvious and during the last year as APS President, I have participated in such meetings in Brazil, Poland, among other countries. APS is also very much aware the in-person modality for meetings remains important, but with the examples of the past year the future points to a continued use of hybrid as these extend the accessibility and inclusivity of our activities.

Through our advocacy, I along with APS leaders in the Office of External Affairs and Government Affairs engaged in direct virtual meetings with high level officials about the “China Initiative.” There is also internal advocacy on the need for the Society to be able to demonstrate possible sources of philanthropic support. As the APS 2021 President, I have reached out to the membership in this regard. I am happy to report that to my knowledge, the year of 2021 marked the first time there was 100% donation participation by the APS Board.

We’ve implemented strategies to foster Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (what I call true “Cultural Climate Change”) and to facilitate the open, global, and secure practice of physics through DELTA-PHY, actions of the APS leadership, and statements of public policy. Through ongoing discussions with the APS Ethics Committee, we are making progress on issues related to conflicts of interest and commitment as well as standards of ethical and professional behavior.

One of the most pleasant experiences of the year was to welcome the new APS CEO, Jonathan Bagger, into a leadership capacity and moreover to work closely with him as he got his sea-legs under him to guide the Society. Jon and I have known each other for over 40 years, and it was very rewarding to be his partner during this time.

I’ve always had confidence in the strength of our organization, but never more so than now. Having had the opportunity to lead APS as President of the Society in 2021, I enjoyed a unique vantage point—to see the breadth of services APS provides our community, to envision what APS could be in the future, and strategically map out with the help, wisdom, and consultation of my colleagues, foundational steps to secure APS’s path forward for generations to come. It is my sincere wish that every APS member would be able to see this organization from a similar vantage point. APS has proven it can weather storms and emerge better for having done so.

We publish the most highly regarded physics publications in the world. By reviewing our governance structure and considering changes to how we manage and execute on our publishing strategy, we will maintain that stronghold.

We have continued to develop, establish, and maintain innovative and important programs for our membership, often in collaboration with our members.

We have convened! Through our computers, in our home offices, with the help of technology, and with large doses of patience and grace, we have shared our love of physics, new discoveries, and new research. We will continue to be adaptive and nimble as the organization faces the challenge of coherently engaging those both among the membership and outside the Society to safely gather in the presence of a variable and sometimes ominous figurative “COVID-19 weather.”

These great disruptors—the pandemic, society’s social, and political foment that we all are passing through—have not derailed us from our mission: to advance and diffuse the knowledge of physics for the benefit of humanity. As the premiere physics member organization, we constantly strive to maintain and increase excellence, and I know that we have been successful in doing so this year. I now pass the torch to my respected colleague and friend, Frances Hellman, to continue the way forward as your 2022 APS President.

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. This article is adapted from his presentation at the 2022 APS Annual Leadership Meeting.

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April 2022 (Volume 31, number 4)

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Articles in this Issue
Navigating the EP3 Guide to Enact Change
APS Continues Progress to Make US More Welcoming for Science
Inclusive Expansion of the Physics Community
Improving Global Science for the Benefit of Humanity
Beyond CRISPR: New DNA Tools Rewrite Genes to Fight Diseases Like COVID-19
Scientists Present a Recipe for Eternal Bubbles
APS Membership Unit Profile
Q&A with the New Lead Editor of Physical Review C, Joseph Kapusta
This Month in Physics History
FYI: Science Policy News From AIP
Profiles in Versatility
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