The American Physical Society (APS) has dumped its longtime lobbyist, one of the most visible spokespeople for the scientific community, within days of angry reactions from some members to the society’s congratulatory message to President-elect Donald Trump.
Michael Lubell was director of public affairs and head of the Washington, D.C., office of the 53,000-member APS, which is based in nearby College Park, Maryland. In his 22 years at APS, Lubell earned a reputation for giving blunt assessments of political developments. Speaking hours after Trump’s victory on 8 November, for example, he called the country’s next commander-in-chief “the first antiscience president we have ever had,” adding that “the consequences [for scientists] are going to be very, very severe.” On election night, Lubell saw the forecasts of a Republican sweep and tweeted that “science will be in the toilet.”
Ironically, it was an expression of the opposite sentiment that may have contributed to Lubell’s dismissal. On 9 November, APS’s Washington, D.C., office issued a statement congratulating Trump and urging him and the new Congress “to make sustained and robust funding of scientific research a top priority.” Such policies, the statement notes, “will help the Trump administration achieve its goal captured in its slogan ‘Make America Great Again.’”
The press release immediately outraged some physicists, and APS withdrew it within a day. Lubell says the critics believed it suggested that APS was “getting in bed with Trump.” As reported last month by Retraction Watch, postings on social media included tweets saying “this is how German sci sold out Jewish sci” and “why not just go with ‘Physicists for fascism’ and be done with it?”
On 14 November the society posted an explanation for its swift action to withdraw the statement that implicitly points a finger at Lubell’s shop. APS officials declined to comment today on Lubell’s departure or whether it was connected to the ill-fated press release.
Lubell says he was suspended on 14 November, 1 day after a meeting of the society’s board of directors, and 4 days later he was given notice that his annual contract would not be renewed. His departure was announced in an 8 December memo to staff and those involved in policy matters. It praised his long tenure. “In his 22 years of dedicated service to APS … he brought considerable experience, passion, and original thinking to his advocacy and advisory role,” wrote CEO Kate Kirby. “His efforts contributed to a large number of noteworthy successes of the Society, and benefited physicists and science significantly.”
The memo makes no mention of the controversial 9 November press release. But observers see a clear connection between it and APS’s decision to remove Lubell.
The one-paragraph note, entitled “Response to Recent APS Press Release,” begins with an apology, calling the release a “regrettable mistake … not properly vetted by the [APS] leadership.” It says APS is “implementing procedures so as not to repeat” the mistake, and ends by saying that APS “will continue to work in a nonpartisan fashion to strengthen scientific research and support an inclusive community.”
Ironically, that last sentence also reflects what Lubell says is his philosophy for dealing with policymakers. “My strategy has always been to tell them, ‘This is where we are, and this is what you can do to change the situation.’ I’ve found that to be a very effective approach,” Lubell says.
Lubell, who is also a professor of physics at City College of New York (CCNY) in New York City, says that some physicists have long been uncomfortable with any APS involvement in politics. He disagrees with that view, saying APS should not ignore political events that could negatively affect its members.
Lubell’s peers credit him with raising APS’s profile in Washington, D.C., by forming coalitions with other scientific groups to advocate on behalf of research. “He was always very much on top of the issues we were all worried about,” says Samuel Rankin, head of the Washington, D.C., office of the American Mathematical Society. “He was very savvy, and he knew how to attack things head on.” Rankin said those coalitions, organized around issues like national security or innovation as well as specific agencies that fund research in the physical sciences, allowed the community to cover more ground and present a common front in speaking with legislators and administration officials.
Lubell retains his position at CCNY, where he teaches a popular course on astronomy for nonscience majors. He said he hopes to take a sabbatical next fall to write a book on U.S. science policy going back to the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1803.
APS is planning to conduct a national search for a new head of its Washington, D.C., office. It’s being run on an interim basis by Francis Slakey, associate director of public affairs and a longtime APS staffer.