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Posts Tagged ‘politics’

Early last week Margaret Thatcher, former British Prime Minister, passed away, aged 87. She was a charismatic figure who was known internationally for being a strong and decisive leader. She had close political ties with President Ronald Reagan, she opposed the communist policies in Eastern Europe, and she was skeptical of increasing integration of the UK with Western Europe. Her actions and legacy are entwined with the global political stage at the time. However, in the UK she was very divisive and at times controversial, and even to this day there is a mixture of high praise a bitter resentment about her policies. Much has been said about her legacy over the past few days, and I think that, regardless of one’s own views, one of the best things we can say about Thatcher is that she knew what her vision was, and she pursued it with a great deal of energy and enthusiasm.

Thatcher, the politician (Mirror)

Thatcher, the politician (Mirror)

During her undergraduate years, Thatcher was a chemist at the University of Oxford. It was only later that she studied law and became a politician, so from her very early career she had an appreciation for science. She knew about the care and attention needed to make discoveries, the frustration of waiting for data, and the need for peer review and skepticism. Given her status as an international leader, she had the opportunity to visit CERN in the early 1980s, but as a scientist she took so much more away from the visit than we could have expected.

Thatcher, the chemist (popsci)

Thatcher, the chemist (popsci)

She’d asked to be treated like a fellow scientist, and her questions showed that she had taken her background reading about CERN seriously. She asked why the proposed accelerator, LEP, would be circular and not linear. This is not an easy question to answer unless the person asking has knowledge about how accelerators work. After a discussion with Herwig Schopper, then Director General, she came back to the UK as an ambassador for CERN and LEP was approved in the UK shortly afterwards. One of her questions was very astute. When told that the LEP tunnel would be the last at CERN she knew from experience that scientists will usually want to go further with their research and in particle physics at the energy frontier, further usually means larger. It’s true that CERN has reused the LEP tunnels for the LHC, but there are also proposals for even larger projects that will probe even higher center of mass energies.

Thatcher must have made a very good impression on Schopper during her visit. A recent Scientific American article has revealed that she was told about the discovery of the W and Z bosons before the information was made public. This letter shows that Schopper kept his promise and trusted Thatcher to keep the tantalizing and preliminary evidence to herself:

Schopper writes to Thatcher (Scientific American)

Schopper writes to Thatcher (Scientific American)

When the news of the \(W\) boson discovery was public she wrote to Peter Kalmus of Queen Mary College, London, to offer her congratulations. Naturally she made a point to mention that there was a significant British effort behind the discovery:

Thatcher's letter to Kalmus

Thatcher's letter to Kalmus

On the one hand, Thatcher was genuinely excited about CERN and the research, but on the other she was a fiscally conservative politician with monetarist policies and she had to defend the spending to her colleagues, and to herself. She had to make sure that the physicists at CERN were using the funding effectively, and delivering high quality scientific results for the spending. During a visit to the Super Proton Synchrotron she spoke John Ellis, who introduced himself as a theoretical physicist. The conversation continued:

Thatcher: “What do you do?”
Ellis: “Think of things for the experiments to look for, and hope they find something different.”
Thatcher: “Wouldn’t it be better if they found what you predicted?”
Ellis: “Then we would not learn how to go further!”

Once again Thatcher knew what question to ask, and Ellis knew what answer to give. Thatcher seemed convinced and knew that the people at CERN has the right attitude when it comes to discovery and use of public money. You can see some media coverage of her visit to the UA1 (Underground Area 1) site on the CERN Document Server.

In 1993, three years after Thatcher left office, David Miller from UCL came up with an analogy for the Higgs field where Thatcher played the central role. Essentially we can think of the Higgs field like a room full of people milling around at a cocktail party. Someone famous and popular enters the room, and all of a sudden people crowd around, making this person’s journey through the room harder. They take longer to get up to a good walking speed, and when they are walking they become harder to stop. That’s essentially what mass is- a measure of hard it is to change an object’s velocity. The analogy goes further, to include rumors being spread from the vicinity of this famous person. They would spread in small groups of people, and each group would have its own “mass”, which is what the Higgs boson is, it’s just an excitation of the field in the presence of matter. Who was the famous person in this analogy? Margaret Thatcher, of course!

Thatcher and the Higgs field (Quantum Tangents)

Thatcher and the Higgs field (Quantum Tangents)

So her legacy with CERN is one of a scientist and a politician. She was genuinely excited to see the discoveries take place, she met with the scientists personally and interacted with them as another scientist. She took the time to understand the questions and answers, and even challenged the physicists with more questions. At the same time she put the projects in context. She had to defend the experiments, so she had to challenge the physicists to give her the information she needed to get the support from the UK. In a sense she knew the need for public outreach, to open up CERN’s scientific program to scrutiny from the public so that when we want to push back the frontiers even further we can count on their support.

If we’re to keep pursuing scientific discoveries in the future, we need scientifically literate and inspired politicians. It would be tempting to say that they are becoming more and more rare, but in reality I think things are more favorable than they have been before. With the recent discoveries we’re in a golden age of physics that has made front page news. Multimedia outlets and the internet have helped spread the good word, so science is high in the public consciousness, and justifying further research is becoming easier. However before the modern internet era and the journalistic juggernaut that comes to CERN each time there’s a big announcement it fell on the shoulders of a few people, and Thatcher was one of them.

(I would like to thank John Ellis for providing help with his quote, and for giving the best answer when asked the question!)


Getting Access…and De-Vilification

Friday, December 2nd, 2011

–by T. “Isaac” Meyer, Head of Strategic Planning and Communication

Today, I witnessed a de-vilification.  It was intense, it was scary at times, and we held hands and talked quietly afterward to ensure we were ready to go out and face the real world again.

What happened?  I attended a 1-day seminar on lobbying.  Yes, lobbying the government.  As part of my job at TRIUMF in communications, strategic planning, outreach, education, external relations, public affairs, community and media relations, and whatever else I do each day to support the noble cause of the laboratory, I went to this seminar put on by the provincial Registrar of Lobbyists and Simon Fraser University. What we learned is that “lobbying” is NOT a bad word. In fact, we learned that is could be made whole, perfect, and complete: de-vilified!

What is lobbying?  Well, in simple terms, it is an undertaking to influence decisions made by government(s).  The Magna Carta granted every citizen the right to petition the crowd with his or her ideas, needs, and opinions — the first “right to lobby” was instantiated nearly 800 years ago!  Legend has it that the term “lobby” arose from the U.S. or the U.K. where people gathered around the politicians in the “lobbies” around the legislative chambers during breaks in session.  “Lobbyist” was therefore someone trying to get the ear of a politician weighing choices before voting.

In the modern world, lobbying is a dirty word. We complain about the undue influence of special interests in Washington, D.C., or Ottawa or even Victoria.  We associate lobbyists with people who just rotated out of government and are using their old rolodexes and networks to have an improper advantage in setting up meetings or having conversations with decision-makers. Worse, we see that many of these “lobbyists” are for hire! That is, they sell their ability to get access and their ability to influence to the highest bidder.

But what is really going on?

When the federal Minister of State for Science & Technology visits TRIUMF and we show him what we’re doing with isotopes for science and medicine, are we lobbying him?  Or when we are in Ottawa for a physics conference and we stop by to brief the clerks at the Ministry of Finance on our annual financial statements, are we lobbying them?

Turns out that most jurisdictions in North America have tried to do two things: (1) register lobbying activities, and (2) disclose these activities in the interests of transparency.  What qualifies as lobbying?  Well, in British Columbia, an organization is considered to be lobbying  the provincial government and must publicly register when the following criteria are all met: (a) there is an intent to communicate with government about an issue in front of it in an effort to support or influence an outcome (even if you’re requesting to maintain the status quo), (b) the people doing the communication are being paid (i.e., employees of the organization), (c) the effort expended by the entire organization for that communication exceeds 100 hours per year including prep time and travel time and meeting time and summed across all the people working on the communication, and (d) the person/people you’re meeting with government are at a certain level of decision/hierarchy.

It sounds complicated, but you can imagine what they’re trying to do: make sure that an average citizen’s letter doesn’t have to be tracked and reported but DO make sure that when larger groups meet on a regular basis with government representatives, there is some record of it.  We don’t want our democracies being run with secret advice in secret meetings!

And sometimes the lobbying registering and reporting rules are complicated. They are different for each part of each government, so one type of meeting might be considered lobbying the provincial government but not the federal government. Or a meeting with the Executive Branch might be lobbying where it wouldn’t be for the Legislative Branch.  For instance, we learned that staff of the Executive Branch cannot accept anything more than a cup of coffee at a function; staff of the U.S. Congress can have food “as long as it is not related to a meal.”  Now what does that mean?!

So what happens when you “register” as a lobbyist?  It means that you then have to keep track and “report” on the meetings and discussions you have with the government on the topics you’re interested in. For instance, a meeting to discuss the federal budget for science would qualify as well as a meeting to learn about the selection criteria for an upcoming research program.  Check out what happens when you register at the Government of Canada’s Office of the Commissioner of Lobbying website.

One of the themes of the workshop was how the system could be revised to allow more participation by interests that don’t have millions of dollars.  One suggestion was that responsibility for lobbyist registration and monitoring should also rest with public servants: when THEY meet with with YOU, they should record/report it and at the same time consider if they need to request a parallel meeting with another stakeholder group that also has a view on the issue up for discussion.

So, my meetings with the federal government do count; now, if the government person initiates the meeting, then it doesn’t.  But when we invite them, which we do ona regular basis, it does!  And TRIUMF certainly spends more than 100 hours per year collectively preparing for and meeting with government.   So that means we are lobbying…or rather, we are exercising our right to petition “the crown” to encourage them to favourable support the future of public funding for Canadian science and technology.

So lobbying is not dirty, its not evil.  You could even argue that lobbying is critical to a free, democratic society.  Its just that when conflicts of interest arise or improper advantages are used or sold that society runs into trouble.  So, what do you think?  What is lobbying for you? When does it cross the line?  Is it an intrinsic part of democracy or is it the path to corruption?

Go ahead—write back and lobby ME.


— by T. “Isaac” Meyer, Head, Strategic Planning & Communications

One thing we have to add to this discussion is how media, news, and analysis enter into the political and policy-making process.  One clear objective of science communications and even any corporate communications activity is to influence decision makers.  But are the traditional streams of media still relevant?

Fortunately, our excellent and thoughtful friends at the National Journal have just publicly released a detailed study of U.S. federal senior executive, Capitol Hill staff, and professional lobbyists that documents how information arrives and is used “inside the Beltway” in Washington, D.C.   The study is entitled “Washington in the Information Age” and is, lightly put, brilliant.

With grateful flattery, I reproduce some of their conclusions here.

1. As the dust settles, traditional platforms (TV, print media, and radio) remain essential components of the media mix.  The report compiles hundreds of interviews and surveys to map out how U.S. political and policy staff receive their news.  Perhaps as a surprise, it is NOT all by Twitter and Facebook. Rather, the new technologies serve as alert mechanisms with trusted, credible analysis still being sought from the traditional sources.

2. Despite the plethora of choices, opinion makers associated with long-established brans carry the most influence online. We all worry that a random citizen in Darkmoor, Pennsylvania, or Blackwater, California, can publish an online blog and start a slanted or even misinforming news source.  It looks like the folks in Washington still rely on verifiable,  credible, long-established names and resources to gather their views.

3. Yet, Washington insiders value a long tail of unique opinion makers.  More than 400 distinct names were cited as credible sources for opinion from among the survey group.  So the Beltway doesn’t follow one columnist or one voice; rather, each person tends to accumulate a set of trusted brands/thought-leaders and then sticks to them over time.  So less fly-by-night than perhaps expected!

4. Washington insiders favour news sources that share political point of view. Perhaps obvious, but results show that Washingtonians cluster around columnists, news sources, and so on that reflect their own ideologies.

5. No longer just for e-mail, mobile devices are a gateway to news and information.  Many Washington insiders now read news and analysis on the small screen and some actually do a good portion of their composition and analysis on the small screen.

6. Mobile devices and new digital communication tools continue to blur the line between the personal the professional. As in, with 24 hour news cycles and multiple streams of referrals and content providers, Washington insiders often mix work and play when communicating digitally.  As anyone who has visited Washington knows, this is supported by the standard screens at a sports bar.  Not only are two or three games showing at the same time, but at least one TV shows CNN and CSPAN.

7. Online video and audio have yet to infringe on the dominance of TV and radio.  Despite the prevalence of online videos and podcasts, few Washington insiders report that they rely on these sources for content.  They are viewed primarily as entertaining.

8. The national obsession with Twitter fades inside the Beltway. Results suggest that Twitter is not a preferred communication tool and the common conception is that 50% of tweets are pointless babble, and the next 30% shameless self-promotion. Beyond that, there is some real content.

9. Social networking sites are popular inside the Beltway. As a tool to track contacts, trade views, and keep up with the vast network of potential wanna-know-yous, social networking tools are growing in use. Perhaps not surprisingly, the growth area for these tools is with Capitol Hill staff who have a tendency to involve more younger people than senior executives or K Street lobbyists.

10. The more things change, the more they stay the same.  Washington’s reliance on proven relationships extends online.  That is, the influencers of the influencers still have specific, personal, trusted connections. Other results of the study show that Washington insiders filter their e-mail by known e-mail addresses, then subject lines, again caring more about WHO than WHAT.

The study is powerful insight into how Washington is adapting to the age of information overload.

When I look at my own day, I can see some parallels to the report’s results.  I spend quality time with print media most often in the form of magazines (monthly more often than weekly) and I rely on news aggregators and other alerts to queue me to new content, but I hunt down my favourite sources to find out “what is really going on.”

Graphic depicting how Washingtonians "flip" between news sources to follow a story.

Please read, compare, and comment!


Hi, folks!

As many of you are undoubtedly aware, the U.S. federal government is in the midst of a budget crisis. The prevailing wisdom in Washington is that deficits are out of control and will soon bring America to ruin; therefore, drastic budget cuts are necessary to ensure the nation’s future health and prosperity. Okay. Let’s take for granted that this is true. Let’s also ignore the official policies and recent acts of Congress that fly in the face of fiscal responsibility. We should probably also narrow our vision to the short-term — say, the next two years — to avoid unpleasant long-term realities.

Still with me? :)

This is now: The FY 2011 budget proposed by Republicans and passed in the House of Representatives would cut non-defense discretionary spending by roughly $60 billion compared to current funding levels. Unfortunately, science funding takes a particularly hard hit:

- Environmental Protection Agency: -$1.6 billion

- Department of Energy loans: -$1.4 billion

- Office of Science: -$1.1 billion

- National Institute of Health: -$1 billion

- Energy efficiency and renewable energy: -$899 million

- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: -$755 million

- NASA: -$379 million

- National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: -$336 million

- National Institute of Standards and Technology: -$186 million

- National Science Foundation: -$139 million

Now, I am not an economist, but it seems clear that this is absolutely devastating. If the budget proposal is passed as-is, thousands of scientists will be laid off, operation of current experiments will be disrupted, and many new projects simply won’t receive funding. Cutting-edge research will be especially hurt — and yes, dear readers, that includes high-energy physics. (Recall the impending shutdown of Fermilab’s Tevatron, for lack of funding.) A wide swath of American scientific research will be stifled. Since basic research and resulting scientific innovations drive long-term economic growth, this is, at best, a short-sighted attempt at reducing our national debt. At worst, it is a self-destructive travesty of pandering and ineptitude that results when politics and reason become mutually exclusive.

I won’t force my position on this issue, but I will point you to a place where you can work the US budget out for yourself: http://public-consultation.org/exercise/. (See how easy public policy decision-making is when you aren’t beholden to the funders of your previous election campaign?) After that, perhaps you would be inclined to contact your elected officials to let them know what you think about all this: http://www.usa.gov/Contact/Elected.shtml.

By any measure, science is an excellent investment in the long-term success of our nation. It should not be a political punching bag. Make some noise, folks! This is serious.

– Burton



Wednesday, January 21st, 2009

Seth at the Inauguration of the 44th President of the United States of America, Barack Hussein Obama III was there.  My personal politics are hardly a secret for those who are interested, but I am not inclined to say too much here about why I was there or what I think about it.  However, there were things to be celebrated at yesterday’s inauguration that even Rick Warren and Diane Feinstein could agree on, things which have already been said by so many who are more eloquent than I am that I hesitate to say a word.   But I will leave you with the words of another, and my own small addendum:

This is an historic election, and I recognize the special significance it has for African Americans and for the special pride that must be theirs tonight.

– Senator John McCain, November 4 2008

That special pride belongs to all of us, Senator McCain.


More exciting than politics!

Saturday, August 23rd, 2008

Some weeks ago, New York Times columnist Gail Collins wrote a piece about the possibility of black-hole production at the LHC.  I think she took this far too seriously; the chance of the LHC making black holes is super-tiny, and these aren’t the sort of black holes that are going to eat anything anyway.  Today Collins (who really is one of my favorite columnists, very trenchant political commentary) returned to the matter.  This time she did talk to an actual physicist, Brown’s Greg Landsberg, who is the US CMS physics coordinator.  She’s still too hung up on it, but at least she gave us some publicity for the big September 10 date, and even said that LHC startup will be as exciting as the upcoming Democratic and Republican conventions.  For sure, it will be more suspenseful!