"Scientists are very comfortable celebrating the successes of their subject, which is understandable, but often the details of these successes can be quite hard to understand outside of the field.
President of the European Physical Society Professor John Dudley talks to Editor Lauren Smith about the value of curiosity-driven research and the importance of communication…
Professor John Dudley
Since its establishment in 1968, the European Physical Society (EPS) has offered a coherent voice to a large and diverse community of physicists from across the continent and beyond. At a crucial time for investment in science, funding for physics is coming under closer scrutiny. Here, EPS President Professor John Dudley discusses with Editor Lauren Smith his concerns about specific financial prioritisation, the importance of multi-disciplinary projects and why physicists must get better at communicating about their work to policymakers and the public.
Originally from New Zealand, Dudley has been working in the European research arena for the last 15 years. He believes that his somewhat external perspective on the community has helped him to appreciate the strengths of an international society such as the EPS in bringing together researchers from different countries, supporting international networking and providing a base of support for a generation of mobile scientists.
Particularly in terms of policy and funding, there is often a push to identify the future front runners in any given field. However, Dudley feels that it can be detrimental in physics, and science more generally, to prioritise investment in this way. "It’s always dangerous, across the sciences, to try to single out fields and predict the winners, because if the history of even recent science – by which I mean that of the 20th
Century – tells you anything, it is that some of the most pervasive and long-term technologies that we now benefit from have arisen from areas of research that previously had absolutely no link whatsoever to the ultimate application," he says.
Citing a popular example from his own field, Dudley highlights the wide-reaching impacts of developments in laser physics.
'Pure curiosity-driven research'
"The early pioneer of the laser, Charles Townes, said very eloquently: ‘which doctor looking for a surgical instrument, or which industrialist looking for a way to cut metal, would have started out by trying to study molecules with microwaves?’" he notes. "It just goes to show that it’s very difficult to identify in advance where results will come from and highlights the difficulty in the search for some kind of prioritisation. All areas of science, not only physics, need to have a critical mass of personnel and resources assigned to them so that they can continue with the possibility of new discoveries in all fields. This should include a focus on the fundamentals, rather than always looking for applied research directed towards specific goals, to encourage pure curiosity-driven research with no short-term goal in mind."
While acknowledging that there are many areas of immediate interest where applied physics has to contribute to solving well-defined and specific problems – in healthcare and energy for example – Dudley believes that this should not be funded at the expense of fundamental research. The challenge of how to balance support for applied research, fundamental research and industrial development, without placing them in direct competition, is complex. However, he feels that it is a short-sighted mistake to assume that prioritising applied research will somehow also lead to far-reaching fundamental discoveries.
Embrace the unexpected
"Europe has strengths in many areas of science, and physics in particular – condensed matter, solid state, photonics, quantum optics and information, high-energy particle physics, astrophysics, etc. – and fundamental research must be supported to continue this," he contends. "It’s impossible to predict the future, but we must look back at what’s happened in the past, try not to make the same obvious mistakes and instead ensure that those things that have worked are continued. The one thing you can say with some certainty is that whilst sometimes research in purely applied areas has led to significant discoveries by raising new questions, many of the major advances in science and technology that we now benefit from have come from completely unexpected directions.
"We need to be aware of this and ensure that history is communicated effectively to the people who make policy so that we don’t focus on the short term, where the real benefits of science are in the long term. We need a better appreciation of the fact that although economists tend to focus on 12 month or five year plans, the timeframe between discovery and real impact in science spans many decades."
Dudley formulated the idea for the International Year of Light in 2015, which the EPS, under the auspices of the United Nations, is now driving to promote important aspects of research, education and development through elements of light.
"Science today is increasingly about working across more than one discipline," he explains, "and the boundaries between different fields are blurring and overlapping. We speak very frequently of the importance of multidisciplinary science, but its real impact is often not fully appreciated. If you look at my own field of research – that of optics and photonics – it’s an area of discovery and innovation that cuts across many different fields, from chemistry and biology to physics and technology. Modern communications wouldn’t exist without lasers, many areas of healthcare depend critically upon optical techniques for diagnosis, and the quality of life of an increasing sector of the population depends more and more on laser technologies to improve vision."
When the idea was originally proposed in 2009, Dudley felt that a positive way to promote interdisciplinarity and communication would be through this common and accessible theme.
"For every age group, from preschool to adults, you can explain something both accessible and scientifically correct about the properties of light," he says. "Using this as a way of reconnecting scientists with the general public is also very important. People often complain that science is misunderstood and that scientists don’t often communicate very well, so an international year on an accessible topic seemed to be a great way of improving the ability of scientists to communicate with the public about what they do and why it’s useful.
Communicating the pleasure of science
"Scientists are very comfortable celebrating the successes of their subject, which is understandable, but often the details of these successes can be quite hard to understand outside of the field. It’s good that scientists are trusted and that people like the fact we are looking for a greater understanding of nature. Results from large experiments such as the LHC and the Hubble telescope capture the imagination of the public and highlight the importance and pleasure of trying to understand the fundamental structure of the universe. But it is equally important to communicate the pleasure of science through lots of other things as well, explaining how much it underpins the technologies of our daily lives in devices such as the mobile telephone, the internet, and in medicine and healthcare."
Dudley feels that national physics organisations already play a significant role in this aspect of communication and education. Another important function of these societies is in encouraging their countries to participate in European and international collaborative projects, with EPS helping to coordinate these activities.
'Facilitating actions on an international level'
"National physical societies have a vital place in allowing their members to network, both within their country first of all, and then across Europe and internationally. They already do that very well. One role of the EPS is to provide a coordinating structure that supports these individual societies in facilitating actions on an international level, providing added value in the interests of supporting physics and physicists across Europe," explains Dudley.
The diversity of opinions and experiences within EPS is its strength, he believes, made possible because it assembles the actions of so many different countries and a very large pool of physicists. Since it has the capacity to generate many ideas, and then the capabilities to refine and then implement those ideas, it puts the organisation on a strong footing to be able to drive forward physics research for the benefit of society.
"One of the most important things for physicists is to communicate our passion for what we do and why we believe it is so important," he concludes. "We need to communicate that more effectively on every level – nationally, internationally and to the general public. It’s part of our educational mission. We need to constantly aim to share and explain, if not always the very detailed and technical aspects of what we do, our love for science to everyone: by what we do, how we act and the arguments we use. The world needs science and it will be at the centre of so many things in our future and for the sustainability of our planet."
Professor John Dudley
European Physical Society
[This article was originally published on 1st
July 2013 as part of Science Omega Review Europe