"Vision" is a term that is often used as an attribute for people who need to do any sort of planning. Most professional scientists are called on to "show vision" as a part of their work, but what does that really mean? "Vision" is the ability to plan beyond the most immediate and obvious set of circumstances in order to enable a research program, company, or department to take advantage of opportunities.
We try to plan (show vision) when we predict what we will find in our research in a proposal to the National Science Foundation or other agency. However, basic research programs often change course during the period of a grant. Fortunately, most of our colleagues who are also familiar with the varying course of research are pretty forgiving about changes in plans. In fact, the typical research program provides what is perhaps the most important lesson about planning and vision: New and changing circumstances require planning to become an ongoing process.
These days, physics and astronomy departments are facing quite serious challenges which, without adequate planning and vision, could easily undermine an otherwise strong program. Such challenges include the permanent reduction of Defense industry following the end of the Cold War, a reduction in Federal spending for science research, and the shift of attention from physics and astronomy to gene splicing. Some reasonably serious scientists now consider the next century to be much more centered on biology, and it would be hard to argue in light of the recent spectacular announcements about cloning and the construction of chromosomes.
So what are we doing about it? Where is the vision? The future of physics and astronomy lies in the ability of the scientists to re-invent and expand their fields. For example, twenty years ago, solids were 3-dimensional. Then thin film technology allowed us to study 2-dimensional and eventually 1-dimensional materials. By logical extension zero-dimensional systems are of much current interest.
Recent meetings on condensed matter physics are full of talks on mesoscopic physics, quantum dots, and nano-technology. A single breakthrough experiment in electron tunneling in the early 80's sparked a revolution in the imaging and manipulation of atoms. Now, physicists may even contemplate stitching together a "custom" strand of DNA.
Physics will not be left out of the biological revolution. Most new opportunities will come from newly invented fields or subfields of physics and astronomy. In addition, new opportunities for education are beginning to appear as technology oriented companies recognize an impending shortage of physical scientists. We need to expand our graduate and undergraduate degree opportunities to include combinations of physics training with professional and business training to develop students with highly marketable skills.
This summer Professor Tu-nan Chang will take over as our Department Chair. During the next few years he will face a continued period of transition as our Department reshapes its future. With vision, we will be able to take advantage of opportunities, enabling our science research and education programs to meet the challenges of the next decade.