Monday, February 15, 2016

A career transition from theoretical physics to public policy

Robert Socolow has an interesting career history. He started out in elementary particle theory, with a Ph.D at Harvard, a postdoc at Berkeley and was an Assistant Professor at Yale. He then made a transition to environmental and energy policy, joining the faculty in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Princeton in 1971. There is an interesting letter he wrote to Steve Fels in 1969 that describes his transition in research interests.

Two years ago Socolow gave a Homage to Frank von Hippel, a physicist who made a similar transition, focusing on nuclear policy and arms control. It is worth reading. Here are some comments Socolow made about physics.
Physics is a special way of knowing, within science. Physics stresses simplification – incredibly useful when other fields place a much lower value on simplification. The physics approach shines a light on other sciences, provides accessibility for outsiders (the intelligent layman).  
Although our cohort stopped working at the frontier of physics, arguably we didn’t leave physics but rather we enlarged the scope of physics. APS has remained our institutional home. A whole cohort of us moved from frontier physics into fields that did not exist beforehand -- fields that did not construct entry points until a long time afterwards. In the 1970s our cohort had a role in creating APS institutions like the Panel on Public Affairs (POPA), the Forum on Physics and Society, and the APS Fellows Program. Frank and I were two of the first six APS Fellows whose route to Fellow was via the Forum on Physics and Society. 
Less than a week ago I was at Harvard for a reunion of all those who received Ph.D.’s in Physics from Harvard, as well as faculty from all periods and current graduate students. There were two morning panels on alternative careers for physicists, featuring alumni now doing different things. Sadly, in my view, nearly all of the panelists had moved from physics to finance. I invited myself onto one panel, and Dan Kammen was on the other one. We reminded the audience that critically important problems were out there which physicists could contribute to. Our message seemed not especially welcome.
I do think physicists have a lot to contribute. Socolow and von Hippel are great role models. However, I also think we have to be careful about "physics hubris", most commonly manifested in two related directions. The first is being naive about how complex problems are. Second, being arrogant and thinking that we are smarter than others who have already spent a lot of time working on these problems. Previously, I wrote about How (not) to break into a new field.

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