Recommendations I: Physics and the Wider Society—Investment, Education, and National Security
From this survey of physics and its broad impact and the identification of six high-priority scientific opportunities, the committee has formulated a total of nine recommendations. They are designed to strengthen all of physics and to ensure the continued international leadership of the United States. The first five, presented in this chapter, focus on the relationship between physics and the wider society. They address the support of physics by the federal government and the scientific community, physics education, and the role of basic physics research in national security. In each case, the recommendations address problems in need of immediate attention.
INVESTING IN PHYSICS
The character and scope of physics are changing rapidly. There are now extraordinary opportunities for addressing the great questions surrounding the structure of matter, the unification of fundamental forces, and the nature of the universe. New applications to technology and to the life sciences are emerging with increasing frequency. New links are being forged with other key sciences such as chemistry, geology, and astronomy. The increased scope of physics is reflected in the committee's set of scientific priorities and opportunities. Fewer than half concern topics that could be said to belong to the traditional core of physics. The others are new directions branching off from old, with great potential for having a wide impact on science, medicine, national security, and economic growth.
It is widely recognized that the federal government must take primary responsibility for the support of basic research in science, research that is vital for the needs of our nation. Such research is often too broad and distant from commercial development to be a sensible industrial investment. This is particularly true for physics. As a fundamental science, it tends to have a long time lag between discovery in the research lab and impact on the lives
of citizens, but by the same token its impact can be all the more profound. Although today's technology and economy are now more closely linked in time with basic physics research than in the past, 10 to 20 years is still the typical interval between a fundamental physics discovery and its impact on society. This can be seen with the laser, magnetic resonance imaging, the optical-fiber transmission line, and many other examples. Much of today's high-tech economy is being driven by the technology that grew out of physics research in the early 1980s.
The unprecedented opportunities facing physics are placing entirely new demands on the field. To study particle interactions at the highest energies, nuclear matter at the highest densities, and the universe at the largest scales and at the earliest moments of its existence requires new instruments of great size and complexity. World-class basic research in quantum phenomena and materials synthesis, with its important economic benefit, can only be carried out with a new generation of sophisticated and precise instrumentation.
Because the federal government plays such a pivotal role in basic physics research, the current level of federal support appears to the committee to be well below the level of support needed to ensure the nation's continuing growth and prosperity. Federal support declined in constant dollars during the 1990s ( Figure 11.1). This decline, coming after the modest growth of the 1980s, has meant that growth in the last 20 years averaged only about 2 percent per year. Relative to the size of the economy as measured by the GDP, federal support dropped by more than 20 percent from 1980 to the present ( Figure 11.2). This trend, in the view of the committee, has made it more difficult for federal science agencies to support outstanding proposals, making the field of physics less attractive to the excellent people it needs.
Several features in Figure 11.1 are worthy of note. The decrease in the constant-dollar support of basic physics research by the National Science Foundation and the Department of Defense from the early 1980s through 1997 is evident, as is the growth in this support from NASA. Another feature, not always appreciated, is that the federal agency providing the most support for basic research in physics is the Department of Energy. Much of this support is provided through the DOE's national laboratories such as Brookhaven Laboratory, Argonne Laboratory, Fermilab, and the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. The importance of the DOE to the nation's scientific and technological strength extends far beyond the defense laboratories, discussed in Chapter 8.
Determining the right level for federal support of basic research in any area of science is a very difficult task. However, looking at the economic
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benefits now being derived from the physics research of the early 1980s, the committee believes that those years provide an appropriate benchmark for federal investment relative to GDP. It sees no evidence that basic physics research was overfunded then (in fact, federal science agencies were often unable to support high-quality research proposals), and the benefits that have flowed from the research of that era are undeniable.
Along with the high-tech economy, the biological and medical sciences have benefited enormously from basic physics research. It is striking to consider how much of the current biomedical enterprise is driven by the instruments and methods developed in physics through the early 1980s. Such physics-invented technologies as x-ray crystallography, magnetic resonance, fiber optics, electron microscopy, mass spectroscopy, and radioactive tracers are at the heart of the rapid pace of discovery in almost every biomedical laboratory.
The federal government's support of basic research in the life sciences, in contrast with its support of physics research, grew even more rapidly than
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the GDP during the past 20 years ( Figure 11.2). The committee shares the view of Harold Varmus, past director of the National Institutes of Health, and many other leaders that the discrepancy in funding levels between research in the life sciences and the physical sciences has become so large that future biomedical research will be limited by the lack of new tools and methods that have traditionally been provided to it by chemistry and physics.
Recommendation 1. To allow physics to contribute strongly to areas of national need, the federal government and the physics community should develop and implement a strategy for long-term investment in basic physics research. Key considerations in this process should include the overall level of this investment necessary to maintain strong economic growth driven by new physics-based technologies, the needs of other sciences that draw heavily on advances in physics, the expanding scientific opportunities in physics itself, the cost-effectiveness of stable funding for research projects, the characteristic time interval between the investment in basic research and its beneficial impact, and the advantages of diverse funding sources. The Physics Survey Overview Committee believes that to support strong economic growth and provide essential tools and methods for the biomedical sciences in the decade ahead, the federal investment in basic physics research relative to GDP should be restored to the levels of the early 1980s.
In both the public and private sectors, it is important that decisions about the development and deployment of a technology be made by people who understand not only its power but also its limitations. Since basic physical principles lie at the heart of this understanding, a first critical goal for our high schools and universities must be scientific literacy—a broad knowledge of these principles on the part of the population at large. A second critical goal is providing the more extensive understanding of physics that is a valuable asset for members of the high-tech workforce. And students must be instilled with an excitement about physics if enough of them are to be drawn into science as a career. Physics education is now failing in each of these critical roles. The present educational system has led to the perception of physics as a difficult subject and not something that
well-educated citizens or even members of the technical workforce need to bother with.
Physics departments at colleges and universities need to address these problems on several levels. The curriculum and teaching methods for physics courses must be changed to meet the educational needs of modern society. Current methods and curricula are largely traditional, created to serve a small elite of students planning on careers in physics, narrowly defined. A wider curriculum is needed that embraces broader links with biology, materials science, information technology, and other sciences. The reforms will be difficult, but they are essential if physics education is to foster a widespread understanding of physics and how it applies to the world around us. Numerous alternative and innovative teaching approaches based on research studies have been developed (see Chapter 5, “Physics Education”). They provide successful models for the formulation of more engaging and effective physics teaching methods. Physics departments should also take an active role in the preparation and ongoing training of K-12 teachers of physical science. Although a thorough grounding in the discipline has been widely recognized as playing a key role in excellent K-12 teaching of any physical science, relatively few physical science teachers in the United States have this background.
Recommendation 2. Physics departments should review and revise their curricula to ensure that they are engaging and effective for a wide range of students and that they make connections to other important areas of science and technology. The principal goals of this revision should be (1) to make physics education do a better job of contributing to the scientific literacy of the general public and the training of the technical workforce and (2) to reverse, through a better-conceived, more outward-looking curriculum, the long-term decline in the numbers of U.S. undergraduate and graduate students studying physics. Greater emphasis should also be placed on improving the preparation of K-12 science teachers.
BIG PHYSICS, SMALL PHYSICS
The scale of scientific research is determined by the science itself. Some of the most exciting questions in elementary-particle and nuclear physics, plasma physics, and cosmology, for example, can be answered only with large accelerators and next-generation observatories. The collaboration of
many scientists and engineers is essential, the lead time is often long, and the costs can become very high. At the other end of the scale are small table-top experiments or theoretical studies carried out typically by only a few scientists and students. This small scale is appropriate for attacking important problems in condensed-matter and atomic physics, although large facilities for x-ray and neutron scattering are now growing ever more common even here.
The priorities and opportunities the committee describes for physics in the coming decade range over all scales of research. Much of the progress in quantum technologies and the synthesis of new materials will continue to come from single investigators and small groups. To identify the dark matter of the universe and determine the origin of the mass of elementary particles will require large facilities and collaborations of unprecedented size. Unraveling the properties of DNA, RNA, and proteins depends on research ranging from experimentation at large synchrotron light facilities to theoretical modeling and simulation by single investigators. And in many areas, the scale of the research increases as new questions emerge out of old.
Some of the challenges confronting progress in physics are common to research at all scales: for example, the availability of talented people and state-of-the-art instrumentation. But the issues can also be very different depending on the scale of the research. From its consultations and deliberations, the committee identified two areas of concern. One is the very limited availability of adequate funding for single-investigator and small-group research. The other is the critical importance of international planning and priority development when large facilities and large collaborations are involved.
Small Groups and Single Investigators
A large, diverse, and well-supported program of single investigators and small groups is essential for scientifically and technologically important advances and new ideas in physics. Discoveries such as magnetic resonance, the laser, the transistor, and superconductivity have all come out of research carried out by groups of one or two senior scientists often working with a few students. This small-group or single-investigator research is the norm in nearly all of theoretical physics and in those areas that have had a particularly large impact on modern technology, such as biophysics and condensed-matter, atomic, and optical physics. This research environment is particularly well suited to training students because it provides many opportunities for individual creativity and independence. These attractions
have led to a large and growing interest in small-group and single-investigator research opportunities among graduate students and to an increasing focus on these areas in the recruiting efforts of many physics departments.
The committee believes that funding for small-group and single-investigator research has become dangerously inadequate and that important opportunities for the nation have been lost as a result. The inadequate funding shows up in numerous ways, including the decreasing success rate in obtaining funding for individual grants and the declining average size, in constant dollars, of individual grants. In many cases the grants have become too small to be viable, and multiple grants are required to sustain a modest research program that formerly required only one. Despite the stiff competition for faculty positions, which has ensured a higher quality of new faculty than ever before, it has become increasingly difficult for young lone investigators working in areas such as condensed-matter physics to obtain federal support.
Because support for small-group and single-investigator research constitutes a small fraction of the total federal investment in physics, this support could be improved substantially with a relatively modest overall increase in funding. The DOE, for example, which provides about two-thirds of the federal support for basic physics research ( Figure 11.1), spends more than 80 percent of its budget on physics associated with large facilities and less than 20 percent on small-group and single-investigator physics. Looked at across all federal agencies, support for small groups and single investigators accounts for only about 20 percent of the budget for basic physics research. Increased funding of this research would be a highly cost-effective way to address the technology and technical workforce needs of the future.
Recommendation 3. Federal science agencies should assign a high priority to providing adequate and stable support for small groups and single investigators working at the cutting edge of physics and related disciplines.
Large Facilities and International Collaboration
Many of the most important questions throughout physics can be addressed only with large facilities and the coordinated efforts of many collaborators. The high costs, the long lead times, and the organizational demands lead to many challenges, but the United States must meet them if it is to maintain its leadership role in many of these areas and regain it in
others. The necessary steps must begin with the physics communities themselves. As the scale of the research increases, it becomes even more important to assess carefully the scientific opportunities and develop clear priorities nationally and internationally. The divisions of the American Physical Society should strengthen their role in the assessment of opportunities and coordinate the society's efforts with those of corresponding societies in other countries.
The federal funding agencies and their advisory committees responsible for the planning and implementation of large-scale physics research must be connected strongly to the community of physicists in the United States and abroad, with participants serving all of physics rather than representing particular constituencies. Large-scale physics requires extensive R&D, and the federal government must be prepared to support this work well in advance of the start-up of specific facilities. Once initiated, a large-scale project must be managed carefully by the responsible federal agencies and the scientists involved. And with any scientific project, mechanisms must be in place to avoid its continuation beyond its lifetime for forefront research.
When the very largest facilities are involved, such as the next generation of particle colliders necessary to study the high-energy frontier, the planning and the implementation should be international. The federal government should improve its ability to engage in international scientific projects. The Office of Science and Technology Policy can play an important role in this process, working with the agencies supporting large-scale physics research to develop effective protocols for international collaboration, including clear criteria for entrance and exit. A particularly important issue is that of long-term, stable funding commitments. The time scale for large projects can be quite long, and all participating governments must be able to make reliable commitments over the scientific lifetime of the project.
Recommendation 4. While planning and priority setting are important for all of physics, they are especially critical when large facilities and collaborations are necessary. To plan successfully, the community of physicists in the United States and abroad must develop a broadly shared vision and communicate this vision clearly and persuasively. Planning and implementation for the very largest facilities should be international. The federal government should develop effective mechanisms for U.S. participation and leadership in international scientific projects, including clear criteria for entrance and exit.
The agencies of the federal government responsible for the national security of the United States must be able to draw on the highest levels of basic scientific research and expertise.
The Department of Defense supports basic research in physics and other sciences, work that is crucial for the defense interests of the United States. Even with the recent increases, the DOD's support of basic research in physics has declined since the end of the Cold War by approximately 11 percent in constant dollars. In addition, year-to-year fluctuations have made it difficult to maintain important research programs. In the past, DOD laboratories had high-quality programs in basic physics research directly relevant to DOD missions. The people carrying out this research were also able to advise the DOD on physics issues involved in testing, research, and equipment being provided to the DOD by industry. The view of the committee is that over the past decade there has been a substantial decline in the amount and quality of physics research being carried out at DOD laboratories and a corresponding loss of talented people to serve as inhouse expert advisors. There is a critical need to ensure that the high-quality physics research and advice required to maintain the technical superiority of our armed forces is being carried out somewhere. The laboratories need to be restored or alternative sources of this expertise must be developed.
The Department of Energy's Office of Defense Programs' national laboratories—Los Alamos, Livermore, and Sandia—have the congressionally mandated duty of verifying the readiness and reliability of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. In the absence of nuclear testing, these laboratories must carry out this duty through a challenging program of component testing and numerical simulation, work that demands the highest quality of scientific personnel, including a vital core of physicists. Many of these researchers were recruited to the laboratories to work on unclassified projects, and they count their ability to participate in basic research as critical to their work.
Security is essential at the laboratories. Lapses can create an adversarial climate between the scientific community and those responsible for security. Low scientist morale and recruitment and retention difficulties now threaten the viability of the laboratories. It is vital to respond to problems in ways that will protect secrecy and yet maintain the creative and scientifically rigorous environment that has been so important to the laboratories throughout their existence.
Recommendation 5. Congress and the Department of Energy should ensure the continued scientific excellence of the Department of Energy's Office of Defense Programs' national laboratories by reestablishing the high priority of long-term basic research in physics and other core competencies important to laboratory missions.