Peril and Promise: Impacts of the COVID-19 Pandemic on the Physical Sciences

To assist leaders in government, academic, the private sector and others who depend on the physical sciences as they craft specific recommendations to address the COVID-19 pandemic's impacts, the American Institute of Physics convened a panel of experts to forecast the effects on the physical sciences. 

The panel that produced this report is composed of nine experts who bring scientific, institutional, experiential, and other dimensions of diversity to this task. Over the course of six weeks, from May to June 2020, the panel focused on the actual and potential impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the physical sciences enterprise as a first step in envisioning a post-pandemic recovery strategy. This report discusses the pandemic's current and expected impacts on the physical sciences enterprise in three dimensions: workforce, infrastructure, and the conduct of research. 

Download the full report


Executive Summary

As with much of America and the world, the conduct of the physical sciences—physics, chemistry, Earth science, astronomy, and related fields—has been severely disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The shutdown of most activities has stalled research, particularly in the laboratory and field sciences, which generally require in-person interactions and logistical support. The operation of major facilities and international travel have been largely curtailed, and universities are being challenged as never before. Perhaps the largest impact has been on students and early-career scientists, especially those from underrepresented groups. On the positive side, the pandemic has opened up opportunities to convene scientists in new ways, making use of new technologies that shrink distances and enable new forms of interpersonal interaction across miles. Social distancing and other pandemic countermeasures, such as virtual meetings, have illuminated the increasing interconnectedness of the sciences, the important roles played by each field of science, as well as the challenges and opportunities associated with new ways of connecting scientists.

The physical sciences have long contributed to the nation’s prosperity and well-being through advancements in, and contributions to, fields from biotechnology to quantum science, from aerospace engineering to renewable energy, and from numerical weather prediction to emergency response. Yet as we survey the pandemic’s impacts, the American physical sciences may be at a tipping point.

If we take swift action to define and defend a vibrant future for science in the United States as we rebuild and renew after the pandemic, we can bring new strength, resiliency, and diversity to the physical sciences community to the benefit of our economy and society for decades. If we do not act on this promise of new opportunity, we are in peril of losing the resilient and robust physical sciences enterprise America needs to remain healthy, innovative, and prosperous.

The physical scientists and engineers that are helping the nation begin to recover stand ready to contribute further. We can emerge from the crisis stronger than ever before, but we need to recognize the more critical impacts and act now.

Pandemic's Impact on the Physical Sciences Enterprise Panel Members


Julia Phillips, Sandia National Laboratories (Retired)


Susan Avery, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (Retired)

Jonathan Bagger, TRIUMF

Phil Bucksbaum, Stanford University

France Córdova, National Science Foundation (Retired)

Eric Isaacs, Carnegie Institution

Victor McCrary, University of the District of Columbia

Robie Samanta Roy, Lockheed Martin Corporation

Carl Wieman, Stanford University

AIP Staff Liaisons

Michael H. Moloney (CEO)

Alex Lopatka

Sarah Weirich

View AIP's Resource Page on COVID-19