Newswise — WASHINGTON, July 8, 2020 -- Despite the wide-ranging disruptions to many aspects of daily life, the continuing impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the physical sciences -- physics, chemistry, Earth science, astronomy and related fields -- promises beneficial opportunities for the economy and society that could last for decades. However, not taking advantage of these opportunities could set back research and education in the wake of facility shutdowns and less interactivity among scientists.

Commissioned by the American Institute of Physics board of directors, “Peril and Promise: Impacts of the COVID-19 Pandemic on the Physical Sciences,” a report from a panel of experts in the physical sciences, outlines several areas where the scientific community has been tested by the pandemic and examines what the future could look like for the workforce, infrastructure and conduct of research.

Calling it “a tipping point,” the panel challenges leaders in government, academia, the private sector and other areas who depend on the physical sciences to craft specific recommendations to address the pandemic’s impacts.

VIDEO: Peril and Promise: Impacts of the COVID-19 Pandemic on the Physical Sciences

“If we take swift action to define and defend a vibrant future for science in the United States as we rebuild and renew after the pandemic, we can bring new strength, resiliency and diversity to the physical sciences community to the benefit of our economy and society for decades,” said Julia Phillips, chair of the AIP Panel on the COVID-19 Pandemic’s Impact on the Physical Sciences Enterprise and member of the National Science Board. “But, if we do not act on this promise of new opportunity, we are in peril of losing the resilient and robust physical sciences enterprise America needs to remain healthy, innovative and prosperous.”

According to a report from an AIP member society, the American Physical Society, industrial physics contributed about $2.3 trillion to the U.S. economy in 2016 and employed about 45 million people, slightly less than a quarter of the U.S. workforce at that time.

The report notes the pandemic presents a clear and present call to action.

“We can emerge from this crisis stronger than ever before, but we need to recognize threats to the scientific enterprise and act now to mitigate them. We need to draw upon the resiliency and innovation inherent in the physical sciences to make a path forward to a prosperous future.”

“The physical sciences have the potential to emerge from the pandemic with a new and larger mission,” said panel member Jonathan Bagger, director and CEO of TRIUMF.

The COVID-19 impact report outlines the current assessment of and challenges facing

  • Undergraduate and high school physical sciences students.
  • Early career scientists -- graduate students, postdocs, and junior faculty.
  • Diversity, equity and inclusion in the physical sciences.
  • Infrastructure demands by universities and colleges.
  • Private sector research that directly or indirectly uses physical scientists.
  • National major research facilities.
  • Conduct of research.
  • International collaboration.

Evidence for the significant contributions to our daily lives made by the physical sciences can be found throughout the economy, communities and lives at home. Technologies that have enabled many to work remotely during the pandemic have their roots in physics, materials science, information technology, and engineering.

“Although the pandemic has made my world physically smaller, because I have been sheltering at home, my world is now mentally larger through the connections I’ve made to new worlds of thoughts and ideas,” said panel member France Córdova, former director of the National Science Foundation.

The pandemic opened possibilities to convene scientists in new ways, making use of the latest technologies that shrink distances and enable advanced forms of interpersonal interaction across the miles. Continuing to develop those opportunities will help enhance and improve contributions to the nation’s prosperity and success.

However, the panel emphasizes that recovering from the pandemic will “present a test of our resilience, imagination and character.” The physical scientists and engineers that are helping the nation begin to recover from this tragic pandemic stand ready to contribute further.

“We can emerge from the crisis stronger than ever before, but we need to recognize the more critical impacts and act now,” the report notes.

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About American Institute of Physics

The American Institute of Physics (AIP) is a 501(c)(3) membership corporation of scientific societies. AIP pursues its mission—to advance, promote, and serve the physical sciences for the benefit of humanity—with a unifying voice of strength from diversity. In its role as a federation, AIP advances the success of its Member Societies by providing the means to pool, coordinate, and leverage their diverse expertise and contributions in pursuit of a shared goal of advancing the physical sciences in the research enterprise, in the economy, in education, and in society. In its role as an institute, AIP operates as a center of excellence using policy analysis, social science, and historical research to promote future progress in the physical sciences.

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