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This paper discusses the ethical aspects of physicists', and the physics community's involvement in public policy. The work of individual physicists is often quite distant from any societal impact and thus public policy is not normally considered an important ethical consideration for individual physicists. However, in light of the great societal impact of physics-based technologies, the physics profession, by definition, has a major impact on public policy. In addition, most physicists in the U.S. benefited considerably from public funding in their physics education, and many continue to depend upon federal and state funding. Thus, there is a strong ethical argument for the physics community to support some physicists and institutions that work to improve public policy so that these technological impacts are beneficial. For example, sustainability problems due to unequal resource allocation and unsustainable consumption patterns are both caused by and can be solved with technological innovation. Physics training can be useful for understanding and developing solutions to these problems. However, public policy, not physics, will largely determine whether technology exacerbates or solves these problems in the future. Therefore, this paper presents a framework of four world-views (the general public, bureaucracies, activists and chiefs) that was developed by anthropologists. It then suggests how this framework can be used to guide the broadening of the physics profession's impact on public policy. It is intended to counter the view of many physicists that policy changes they would recommend (such as those that would promote the use of more sustainable technologies) are not "politically feasible." This paper argues that such changes would be more politically feasible if the physics community trained and supported more "translators" to work with the full set players that impact policy in our democratic society.

Material Type

Conference Paper

Research Area

Physics | Public Affairs, Public Policy and Public Administration

Acknowledgement and Disclaimer

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. SBR-9511817. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. The texts of the workshop talks have been prepared by the speakers themselves. The other material has been prepared by the editors based on discussions during the workshop and feedback from those who have read earlier drafts. While every effort has been made to accurately reflect the facts and opinions supplied by these contributors, the editors take full responsibility for any inaccuracies.


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