Posted on March 5, 2021

Major Physics Society Won’t Meet in Cities with Racist Policing Record

Nidhi Subbaraman, Nature, February 26, 2021

Days after police killed George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, last May, physicist Philip Phillips was in his garden in Champaign, Illinois, incensed and racking his brain over how his scientific community could respond. Scientific institutions had not done enough to acknowledge previous deaths of Black people in police encounters, and this time should be different, he thought. {snip}

Phillips, a researcher at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, worked with colleague Michael Weissman to draft an open letter asking scientific societies to consider taking tangible steps to back up protests against police violence. Specifically, he proposed that such organizations should not hold their large annual meetings — which can bring thousands of visitors and an influx of cash — in cities with bad policing records.

“It occurred to me that meetings held in cities are putting Black and brown people at risk if they aren’t choosing with anything in mind about what are the policing practices,” says Phillips. {snip}

Physics Today and Science published versions of the letter in June and July. And at least one group listened. In November, the American Physical Society (APS) in College Park, Maryland, which has more than 55,000 members, announced that it will consider police conduct when choosing cities for future meetings.

The organization is so far unique among US scientific societies in taking this step, which comes after a renewed call from researchers to make scientific institutions more inclusive to individuals who identify as Black, Indigenous or people of colour (BIPOC) — a group under-represented in their ranks. Nature contacted a number of US societies to ask whether they had such a policy in place; of the seven that responded, none does. {snip}

When evaluating whether to hold meetings in a particular city, the APS will now consider factors including: whether city police are trained in de-escalation measures; whether an independent body exists to investigate shootings and deaths in police custody; and whether a city provides open data on the use of force by its police, as well as demographic information about the targets of that force. {snip}

After coming up with the idea about location choice, Phillips canvassed APS leaders by e-mail. He also raised the concept during a virtual APS forum last June. Some members pushed back, arguing that the APS is “not a political organization”, he says, but the society eventually adopted it.


Scientists applauded the APS’s November announcement on Twitter. Some called on other scientific societies to implement similar measures.


Last June, physicists were among the researchers who successfully pushed institutions to acknowledge racism in science and start conversations about ways to dismantle racist academic structures and practices, under the banners #ShutDownSTEM and #Strike4BlackLives.