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Q&A: Jonathan Bagger, APS’s new CEO, on the role of physics in society

13 November 2020

Immigration, diversity and inclusiveness, and pandemic reverberations are his priority issues.

In January Jonathan Bagger will become CEO of the American Physical Society (APS). He succeeds Kate Kirby, who took the job when the position was created in 2015 in a structural reform.

Jonathan Bagger.
Credit: TRIUMF

Bagger earned his PhD in theoretical physics at Princeton University in 1983. His research has centered on theory and phenomenology beyond the standard model of particle physics, with a focus on supersymmetry and supergravity. He was on the faculty of Harvard for three years before moving to Johns Hopkins University in 1989. There, in addition to research and teaching, he served in various administrative roles, including six years as vice provost and one year as interim provost. In 2014 he became director of TRIUMF, Canada’s national particle accelerator center, and a physics professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Moving to APS brings him back to Maryland, where he retains an affiliation with Johns Hopkins.

Over the years, Bagger has served APS in a variety of capacities, including sitting on prize committees, representing the community as secretary-treasurer and chair of the division of particles and fields, serving as a member of the council and executive board, and working as associate editor for Physical Review D and Physical Review Letters.

“It’s a critical moment for science to step forward and address the world’s challenges, from climate change to food security to infectious disease,” Bagger says. That’s something he hopes to support from his new perch at the 55 000-member APS.

PT: What attracted you to the CEO job at APS?

BAGGER: The world is facing serious challenges on many fronts. Addressing them will require an international effort that is multidisciplinary, multigenerational, and fact based. Physics, with its collaborative culture, global collaborations, and analytic approach, can play a critical role in the search for solutions. It’s essential that we do so—for the health of humanity, for the future of our country, and for the vitality of physics itself. APS provides a platform for this deep social engagement.

PT: What are your priorities?

BAGGER: I have much to learn about what is being done already. I’d like to encourage physics to take a broad and inclusive view of itself. In particular, I’d like to open our community to attract as many kinds of people as we can, irrespective of their race, their religion, their gender or sexual orientation. We need everybody to pitch in, to feel welcome, and to feel that they belong.

Physicists have so much to contribute, from advancing fundamental research to creating practical solutions to real-world problems. I would hope to encourage initiatives that advance these goals.

PT: APS lost millions of dollars this year, largely because the pandemic forced the major meetings to be held remotely. What is the outlook for activities under constrained budgetary conditions?

BAGGER: APS cannot stand still. The solutions to so many global challenges will come from science and scientists. APS needs to be at the fore, supporting our science and our community.

PT: What are your thoughts about remote meetings?

BAGGER: Remote meetings offer a powerful platform to reach more people, particularly those who cannot travel. I imagine that in the future APS meetings will have both in-person and remote components. It will take experimentation to find the proper balance.

PT: What is an example of physicists working to solve societal problems?

BAGGER: I think AIP [American Institute of Physics, publisher of Physics Today] did a terrific job by producing the TEAM-UP report, which took a deep look at the systemic barriers—the systemic racism, frankly—that impede the entry of African Americans into our field. And the report proposed some concrete actions. I would hope to work with AIP and other societies to implement many of the recommendations and to remove those barriers to entry. [See Physics Today, February 2020, page 20.]

APS started APS-IDEA [APS Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity Alliance], which is helping physics departments across the country learn to create more welcoming and inclusive environments. APS reaches most US physics departments, so it is perfectly positioned to provide instruments to help departments achieve their goals.

PT: What about in other areas, such as food insecurity and climate change?

BAGGER: To first order, physicists are trained to think and work quantitatively and collaboratively. These are essential skills to address any challenge, including societal issues. Clearly the solution to climate change will involve new technologies and new approaches to energy use and production—and these are squarely in our wheelhouse. I am sure there are physicists itching to be involved, and APS stands ready to support them.

PT: What do you envision as the long-term effects of the pandemic on science?

BAGGER: The pandemic is putting many areas of the global science enterprise at risk through lab and university closures and also through its effects on the education and training of students, postdocs, and other people whose careers are stalled.

I am especially worried about early-career scientists, people for whom the clock is ticking. If a senior scientist misses a year in the lab, it’s not great, but they will recover. But for a postdoc on a two-year appointment, missing a year is serious. Canada has been extending funding to early-career scientists so they can hunker down and work, perhaps not as efficiently as before, but enough to make it through. It is my understanding that the US record is a bit spottier.

One recommendation of the July AIP report “Peril and Promise: Impacts of the COVID-19 Pandemic on the Physical Sciences” was to focus on protecting the next generation. I was an international representative on that panel, and I fully support its conclusions.

Physical scientists are making significant contributions to the pandemic response. For example, the ventilator that particle physicists developed using their knowledge of electronics and gas-flow technology went from concept to FDA emergency-use authorization in six weeks. [See Physics Today, July 2020, page 22.] Such contributions point the way to a new understanding of the role of physical sciences in national security. That role goes beyond defense-oriented security or homeland security; it can include security against infectious diseases and more. Perhaps current events provide an opportunity to reconceptualize the value of physics to society.

PT: In addition to visa delays due to the pandemic, various new visa restrictions have been implemented or considered in recent months and years. What are the implications of tightening visa restrictions for students and more senior scientists in the US?

BAGGER: Immigration restrictions in the US will be a major blow to the science community. Physics is an international enterprise, and the US is stronger when it engages.

In the short run, immigration is critical to the science enterprise. In the long run, I’d like to see more domestic talent go into science. The US needs to do a better job of growing young scientists. That will also help with issues of diversity and inclusion. We can move the balance to more homegrown talent, but there will always be a mix.

Immigration policies are being rethought in other countries as well. I believe that APS should embrace policies that reinforce the universal values of science, including openness, transparency, collaboration, and communication.

PT: What can APS do to help?

BAGGER: APS is already speaking up. I am very pleased how APS is speaking out clearly on immigration, racism, and other broad societal issues. I want to keep that momentum going.

PT: Do you see ways to increase member engagement in APS?

BAGGER: Members are already deeply engaged, as evidenced by the fact that so many of them contribute to the society through volunteer activities. Going forward, we will look for ways to better serve the members we have and to bring in new members, particularly from the industrial and international spheres.

PT: As a theoretical physicist, when did you get interested in racial justice, climate change, and other societal issues?

BAGGER: Education is a continuous process. When I was young, I was mostly interested in making the math work. As I grew older, my interests enlarged. This is one reason I went to TRIUMF, which does a magnificent job at translating nuclear physics into social good, especially in the health sciences.

I chose to attend a liberal arts college, Dartmouth. I was not a hardcore physics major. I spent a lot of time on the swimming team and taking things that were not physics courses.

As a child, I worked to restore our 200-year-old house in New Jersey. The experience of working with my hands gave me a deeper connection to the technicians and tradespeople at TRIUMF than anything to do with my physics background. I’ve come to appreciate how multidimensional people are. And there is usually some element of connection.

PT: Given that British Columbia, in particular, has handled the virus better than the US has, how do you feel about moving back to the US at this time?

BAGGER: I have mixed feelings. TRIUMF is a very special place, and British Columbia is spectacular. And you are certainly right that the course of the pandemic in Canada shows the value of following public health advice—life in BC is much closer to normal than it is in Maryland. But most of my family is in the US, and because of the pandemic the border is closed for the indefinite future.

Nevertheless, the driving reason for my decision is APS. Leading APS at this moment in history is a really exciting opportunity.

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