Reference Frame
Leo P. Kadanoff

Leo Kadanoff

Terms of employment for research physicists are changing rapidly. Over the last ten or fifteen years, basic research groups at, for example, AT&T, IBM, and the petroleum companies have mostly been dismantled to be replaced by more applied and directed efforts. Even product-related research groups have often shrunk. Scientists at all levels have been replaced, retired, terminated, moved, or fired-sometimes gracefully,  sometimes not. 

A different kind of dislocation has taken place at the                      large US government scientific laboratories. These                         institutions have been tossed one way and the other as                   they and society attempted to define their mission and                   goals. For a time, environmental work was in, then                        collaboration with industry, then the educational function,             then this and that. Many friends of the laboratories began             to wonder whether the labs could each sustain an overall               scientific or technical purpose. And when their institutions            lack purpose, scientists and other responsible workers                     become disoriented because they cannot see how to serve the institutions or themselves. In the US, we have in the last decade, seen a rather large number of temporarily unemployed research scientists, with the biggest group coming from industry. Universities and government laboratories have absorbed some but not all of the resulting exodus. In parallel, the university system has absorbed large numbers of ex-Soviet bloc scientists and students, as well as a gradually increasing group of students from the technologically advanced Asian countries. 

The US university system itself is in the process of major change. American society has more and  more taken the view that the universities offer too little education at too high a price. Many people  have become less and less happy about supporting scholarship and research, especially in fields in  which the economic gain is long-term (most of physics) or problematical (literature). New models for  education have arisen. For example, the University of Phoenix offers an inexpensive education, with  ?library facilities?-mostly on line-and few full-time teachers. It is likely to be a strong competitor for  the students and financial support that now go to our more conventional institutions. These changes  would have been unbearable for the physics community were it not for a parallel development in  industry. New jobs opened in biotechnology, software, bioinformatics, and especially in the financial  and management consulting industries. These jobs need flexible and intelligent people, well trained  to ask and answer questions. And by some irony, many of these jobs-often the ones furthest from  conventional science-provide first- and second-year salaries that are three or four or five times the  usual starting salaries in the remainder of the profession. The newly extended job markets have  absorbed most of the apparently redundant physicists, as well as many of the newly arrived Asian  and Eastern European students and scientists. Without these partially foreign-educated scientists, it  would have been difficult to find the technical knowledge and training needed for the US labor pool.  Indeed universities and industry and government laboratories have all made very extensive use of  people partially educated abroad and then further educated in the US. Especially in theoretical and  computational fields, it is close to impossible to run a state-of-the-art operation without recently  arrived scientists. 

Each generation of physicists has an opportunity to change the nature of physics, and redo the  field?s standards and goals. We are seeing a big change in the physics profession. A generation  from now, a new group of people will have taken over, many with different aspirations and different  standards from our own. They will try to define physics in a way that meets the needs of their times,  their education and experience, and their cultural backgrounds. 

We have already seen fifteen years of considerable change-and can expect more changes to come.  These developments leave the individual scientist with a substantial problem in planning a career in  science. This planning must be done in circumstances of very considerable uncertainty about the  structure of the institutions that will employ scientists and the nature of the jobs within them. Change  is certain. The direction is unclear. 

These problems are not peculiar to scientists. They are shared by steelworkers, bus drivers,  physicians, politicians, and retirees. In a period of great growth in wealth, we have seen a big rise in  insecurity. (Many believe, in fact, that the greater insecurity has helped cause the increase in  wealth.) No longer is it true that one?s job is one?s most precious possession. A downsize here, a  curriculum revision there, an outsourcing here, a reorganization there-and whole groups of jobs can  disappear. in many ways, physicists are particularly well suited to defend themselves against these  gusts of adverse fortune. In practicing physics, we learn how to solve problems, and we expect the  new problems to be different from the old ones. So must it be in our professional lives. We must be  aware of and work within a rapidly changing job market. We must try to acquire skills that are both  new (after all, we are particularly flexible) and also picked to be useful in potential future employment.  Our market value is likely to be in our problem-solving skills and flexibility-and less likely to be in a  particular process or technique. Economic success or even survival will require each of us to invest  less in a particular job and more in our own ability to do the next job. In plain fact, the right time to  invest in new knowledge is while one is in the very middle of a solid, ongoing project. Soon enough,  the present problem will get solved, or interest will turn away from the subject, or support will  disappear. There are many possibilities but one end: Change will erode the ongoing project, and a  replacement activity will be required. 

The replacement process requires investment in new problems, new techniques, new skills, and new  fields. For many physicists, these investments will have to be made in the face of pressure to  conform to the most conventional views of our scientific fields. Philip W. Anderson (Physics Today,  September, page 11) has described how short-term job pressures can work against novelty and  creativity, thereby weakening the productivity of everyone. 

In contrast, thoughtful responses to the pressures of change can perhaps help some individuals and  institutions be more creative. But, as in the broader economy, many scientists are likely to be left  behind by this process. And, perhaps the uncertainties and insecurities of our time will seriously  erode all possibility of thoughtful study of the physical world. We don?t know. Yet. 

Leo P. Kadanoff is a condensed matter theorist at the University of Chicago.