Physics Today on Ethics

A correspondent points out that this month’s Physics Today has a couple articles about ethical issues involved in how physics research is conducted in the U.S.

Most of this doesn’t really apply to the kind of research I know best, theoretical research in physics and research in math. One main issue considered is the trustworthiness of experimental data, and as far as I can tell, in elementary particle physics the data is quite trustworthy. Since the collaborations that produce these results are so huge, many people are involved in going over any published result of any interest, so even if someone were tempted to fake or manipulate data, it would be hard to get away with.

Another issue of concern is the treatment of young experimentalists, who are often overworked and under-recognized. But the situation of theorists is generally different. In most cases the problem for them is thesis advisors who ignore them, not ones who pay close attention to what they are doing and make them work too hard. There is a fundamental ethical problem in the treatment of young theorists by the physics community, that of producing far more particle physics Ph.D.s than there are jobs for. This creates a brutal situation for young people, while it is to some degree in the interests of those who are established in permanent positions to let this go on.

The main ethical problem in particle theory research these days, a fundamental lack of honesty in how the results of this research are evaluated, doesn’t seem to be addressed at all in the Physics Today articles.

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12 Responses to Physics Today on Ethics

  1. D R Lunsford says:


    It’s actually an exciting time to be a theorist, because everyone in academe is so out to lunch, there’s plenty of open space for real work.

  2. Chris Oakley says:


    Agreed – my statement should have been qualified accordingly (a lot of groups here in the UK work on lattice gauge theory). As you will have gathered, I was never tempted, but I do not deny that it connects directly with the experimentalists.

  3. Matthew says:

    Hi Chris,

    What is called “particle physics theory” now really belongs in the mathematics (or arguably even the theology) department, with “particle physics theory” as I understood it 25 years ago, which took a keen interest in experiments, virtually ceasing to exist. The result of this is that the experimentalists now do their own modelling, expecting little or no help from the theorists.

    Just to be somewhat more optimistic, there is a active phenomenolgy community in particle theory which still cares about experiments. Many of the people here at Cornell attempt to understand what will be seen in the next round of experiments at the LHC. Also, there is a large group of theorists (myself inculded) who interface with the ongoing b and c quark physics programs.

    Now, you don’t see that in the popular press 🙂 which is mostly string theory focused. Of course, some of the models propose (large extra dimensions, for one) may be wacky, but they are testable at the LHC, and the people who propose them do make detailed (or as detailed as they can) predictions about how to do these tests.

    From my perspective, it’s an exciting time to be a phenomenolegist.

  4. Hello everyone,
    I agree with Peter on the No of Ph.d/academic jobs issue. The problem is not that, in principle, there should be a perfect adequation betweens these two numbers. The actual problem is with the ratio. I don’t know the figures for usa but in France, for mathematics, the ration is about 20/1 and this is ridiculously high. It’s even worse in theoretical physics. For each academic position in any french university there is commonly over 150 candidates, many of them very good. It means 90% of the CV sent won’t be considered as they should be : they are sent directly to the trash can if at first glance they boast fewer (maybe uninteresting and repetitive) published papers than the others. This is huge encouragement to uniformity of curiculum.

  5. Having damned the NYRB article with faint praise in my previous comment, I would like to add that it is very good on the universal scientific problem of priority and credit. Definitely worth a read!

  6. Followers of this discussion may find this New York Review of Books article interesting. It reviews a book and the Union of Concerned Scientists’ paper on the Bush administration. As is often the case, the review (and possibly the book) assumes science is the same as medical trials, but it’s interesting nevertheless.

  7. Fabio Lanzoni says:

    I probly woulda still gotten my PhD had I known in advance I would not stay in academia; as Emanuel Derman says in his book, it’s not a bad way to waste away your 20’s. So I don’t think its necessarily unethical to train more students than there are faculty openings, as long as you are honest with the students about their prospects.

  8. Chris Oakley says:


    One would of course get the same problem if everyone with a classics or history degree wanted to be an academic, but most realise that this is not possible, or they want to do something different anyway. A PhD in mathematics or a “hard” science is however an asset in most cases if one chooses to go into the so-called “real” world, and the economic equation may work out to one’s advantage even taking account of poor remuneration when one is a student.

    I am not sure that universities can do anything much differently … ultimately one’s product is only worth what people are prepared to pay for it and this applies as much to academic research and teaching as to cars or cosmetics. It seems inevitable that with limited money and a lot of people wanting to be academics, salaries will be driven down and people will be exploited. My only gripe is that the limited resources could be used better … i.e. more emphasis on new ideas and less on vested interests.

  9. Peter says:

    There isn’t a direct economic reason for a particular faculty member doing theory to want to produce more Ph.D. students. But there are lots of indirect ones. For instance, if you want to be able to teach advanced graduate courses in your specialty, you need a large enough audience that will take the course. As far as the university as an institution is concerned, it has many direct economic incentives to produce as many Ph.D.s as possible:

    1. Sometimes you can get either the student or someone else to pay large amounts of tuition dollars (e.g. the student may be on some sort of fellowship paid for by a grant or some other sort of outside money).

    2. If they don’t have outside money, you appoint students as teaching fellows, thereby getting employees who will work quite cheaply. Paying graduate students is not cheap, but it’s a lot cheaper than hiring full-time regular faculty.

    3. Once they get their Ph.D.s, students will join a large underemployed labor pool, and everytime you have a faculty job you want to fill, hundreds of them will apply for it, many of whom will be willing to take the job no matter how badly it pays. By handing out a lot of Ph.D.s you create a large pool of cheap labor.

    University administrations are the ones that set the number of how many Ph.D. slots they have, departments basically always take as many as they can get.

  10. Chris Oakley says:

    I do not think that the “training more people than there are jobs for them” argument holds water. If it did, then we might as well give up altogether on the study of Classics, Philosophy and many other subjects where almost all the relevant jobs are just teaching the subject to others. Apart from subjects like Medicine, only a minority of students that will be expecting their degree course to be a specific vocational training. For example, the Aeronautical Engineering PhD’s we hired at Nomura to do financial modelling were perfectly happy to leave air flow calculations behind them when they joined the company.

    The problem with particle physics theory as I see it is that the nature of the beast has changed. What is called “particle physics theory” now really belongs in the mathematics (or arguably even the theology) department, with “particle physics theory” as I understood it 25 years ago, which took a keen interest in experiments, virtually ceasing to exist. The result of this is that the experimentalists now do their own modelling, expecting little or no help from the theorists. The problem is that, unaided, the experimentalists are less successful in getting the public’s interest, so given the high costs involved, this can only lead in the long term to decline.

  11. Well, about the data, I am a bit worried on the use of the concept of “confidence level”, and the current methods seem to be a mix of bayesianism and standard frequentist approaches, plus some random 🙂 montecarlo comparisions. Not unethical, but enough to let people to choose the approach they feel better.

  12. JC says:


    Are there “economic” reasons for established folks to produce many more PhD students than the number of available jobs? (ie. Do folks get more government grant money for producing more papers, theses, etc …?)

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