Physics Should Get Its Act Together

George Keyworth, the Washington businessman who once served as science adviser to the President, was fond of calling on the scientific community to "get its act together"

By | June 15, 1987

George Keyworth, the Washington businessman who once served as science adviser to the President, was fond of calling on the scientific community to "get its act together" and start setting priorities. The words have the sound of reason. Surely not all science is equally important and, if scientists don't set the priorities, someone else will.

But, of course, as Keyworth must have realized, it's not that simple. It was, for example, possible for nuclear physicists to reach a consensus of sorts that the Continuous Electron Beam Accelerator Facility (CEBAF) is what they most need to re-invigorate their field. Money would not have been budgeted to build CEBAF without that consensus. Somewhere else, however, the decision had to be made that nuclear physics is worth revitalizing.

Who decides it is more important to build CEBAF than a cold neutron source for solid-state physics? Who decides that any project in physics is more important than mapping the human genome? And who decides how much to give science when there are pressing social needs that go unmet? Ultimately, our elected representatives must make those decisions. Our responsibility is to inform the politicians of what our science can do—but they won't hear us if we speak with too many voices.

So what do we do, appoint a committee to set priorities and all agree to abide by its decisions? A few years ago, Keyworth asked the National Academy of Sciences to convene a panel to recommend priorities for new facilities in materials science. The reaction by much of the materials science community was outrage. Who elected the panel members to speak for materials science? Nevertheless, the panel did its difficult and thankless job and came up with a priority list. It didn't please everyone, but it was a rational list So did Keyworth heed theirpriorities? Hardly. The administration proceeded to move through the list in exactly reverse order! The facility of lowest priority was funded first, the next lowest came second and so on. What Keyworth really meant when he said to "get your act together" was "get behind the administration."

The truth is, however, that we are not very good at predicting where the next important discovery will be made anyway. Who among us would have stood up one year ago and declared that priority should be given to high-temperature superconductors? How many times has a moribund field taken on totally unexpected new life, as in the field of optics? And important to what—defense, competitiveness, esthetics, training new scientists, national pride, or the progress of pure science? How are these factors to be weighted?

Most people, for example, would tend to give relatively little weight to national pride, but that might be a mistake. We are heavily dependent on importing scientific and technical talent to run our technological enterprise. These scientists come here because the United States is the center of the universe for science. Our vitality depends on remaining the center.

The Case of the SSC

All of this bears, of course, on the decision to build the Superconducting Supercollider—scientific research on the grandest scale ever attempted. A project so audacious its concept excites the imagination—but it also stirs anxiety over the possible impact of such an unprecedented concentration of research funding on the rest of science and, in particular, on the rest of physics.

This is perhaps the most divisive issue ever to confront the physics community. No one doubts that the search for the Higgs boson—an elementary particle predicted by the "standard theory"—is an important frontier of physics, but it is only one of many frontiers.

What is it that makes physics a community? We suffer from nostalgia for an era when the unity of physics seemed much greater. Perhaps it seemed so only because it was smaller. We attend specialist meetings, not because we are uninterested in the happenings in other subfields of physics, but because we are straining just to keep up in our own area.

What ties us together is our education. We all take pretty much the same courses and use the same mathematical language. We therefore tend to approach problems the same way—an approach that is very different than that of a politician. Above all, we share the esthetic pleasure of discovering the common laws that govern physical events. There are countless examples of mathematical tools and physical concepts being exported from one field of physics to another. So the unity is in fact there. We are a community, but neveragain as in the first half of this century.

I attended the recent hearings on the SSC before the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. There were distinguished physicists arguing passionately for it and other equally distinguished physicists warning that the cost-effectiveness of such an undertaking raises serious concerns. There were sharp differences in estimates of cost and widely divergent assessments of past developments. What was most apparent to me, listening to the testimony and watching the reactions, was that both sides were hearing some of the arguments for the first time.

We have all served on numerous committees and study groups that have reached a constructive consensus in spite of wide differences at the outset. We do, after all, speak the same language. Such meetings should have taken place long before the congressional hearings.

It is unrealistic to expect condensed-matter physicists to start lobbying for the SSC or for particle physicists to sit quietly by while we lose a whole generation of new high-energy physicists, but I believe all of physics would have benefited by some discussion preceding the congressional hearings. Keyworth was right, it is time to get our act together.

Park is executive director of the American Physical Society's office of public affairs, 2000 Florida Ave., N. W, Washington, DC 20009. This is adapted from his talk at the symposium "Big Science/Little Science" during the APS annual meeting, April 20 in Washington, D.C.

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