Physicists and Technologists in Washington

Physicists and Technologists in Washington
April 4, 2012

Last week we were visited by Dr. Gerald Blazey, the assistant director for Physical Sciences of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Three years ago, had Dr. Gerald Blazey visited Jefferson Lab, it would have been as a member of the Office of High Energy Physics in the Office of Science of DOE. For his day job, Gerald Blazey is Distinguished Research Professor at Northern Illinois University. He is also the director of the Northern Illinois Accelerator and Detector Center, a structure under which there are joint appointments and joint enterprises between Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and Northern Illinois University. Earlier, Professor Jerry Blazey served as co-spokesman of the DZero experiment at the Fermilab Tevatron.

So, Jerry Blazey was/is a bona fide working faculty member, teacher and researcher of some repute.

So, why would he want to go to Washington?

There can be multiple reasons.

If you listen to the stories, Hermann Grunder, the first Director of CEBAF (later Jefferson Lab), spent a period in the DOE in Washington. He learned how decisions are influenced and made and how the system in general works. That proved invaluable to him when it was vital for him to understand exactly these facets. In more recent times, Leigh Harwood spent time in the Office of Nuclear Physics. Leigh doesn’t need to guess about how a particular decision was made, he can pretty much give a reasonably accurate summary of the process.

Now, a good fraction of the members of the Office of Nuclear Physics sit at the same table in the cafeteria in Germantown to eat lunch. Similarly, but usually at a different table, sit the people from the Office of High Energy Physics. We all know the phenomenon of not being at the table at the right time. We get committee assignments, but also conversations can get out of balance. So, it is always good to be present and participating rather than to be absent.

It is also a fact that the general decisions taken by the Office of Nuclear Physics or the Physics Division in the National Science Foundation drive the field, our field! These bodies also have influence on our university colleagues. It is desirable that the quality of these decisions and, hence, the quality of the people be as high as possible. The work excludes issues for which the person is conflicted, but by helping to fill the positions we would be contributing to the overall quality. We are currently about to have our third successive Jefferson Lab community physicist embark on a stint at NSF; recently we have had Allena Opper of the George Washington University and Kyungseon Joo of University of Connecticut. It is a great thing for the agency, lab and the person.

That above discussion addressed the first reason for a physicist to go to Washington. The second is that we tend to feel as physicists and technologists that things “up at the top” could be done better. Usually, we cannot enter into these things with the intent to get our own way; but there are real opportunities in Washington for the scientifically literate citizen to nudge the decisions so that the decisions taken are at least better informed. These opportunities are present in DOE in the Office of Science. They are there in the National Science Foundation. They are there in the Office of Management and Budgets. Our previous OMB monitor was a nuclear theorist; our present OMB monitor is an astrophysicist by training. The current associate director for Physical Sciences in OSTP is Carl Weiman, whose measurements of atomic parity violation intersect with the parity violation measurements such as those to come from Q-Weak and who received the Nobel Prize for work in Bose-Einstein condensates in 2001. And Jerry Blazey is Carl Weiman’s assistant director.

So, why do I write about this? Well, it is a recurring theme of presentations by Tim Hallman and Brad Keister, that they are looking, always looking for people to help them. A year is not an abnormally short assignment. I genuinely feel that some of you would benefit your own careers and the lab if you were to take on such a role. I used to hear it said that “a change is as good as a rest,” so likely there are therapeutic benefits. But most of all, these are opportunities to make things better. The old adage: “Ask not what the system can do for you, ask what you can do for the system."

On a final note for the really ambitious, there is a very exclusive club. It has a membership of two, sometimes three, certainly less than 10. It is the club of congressional representatives, congressmen and senators who have degrees in physics, or chemistry and similar. This theme was prominent in two sessions this past weekend at the American Physical Society meeting in Atlanta. In his address the past president, Barry Barish, a member of our JSA Science Council, compared the fraction of scientists in government, a few percent in the United States as compared to what looked like 80-90 percent in China. And then in another session, Neal Lane of Rice, an ex-science adviser to the president and director of NSF showed pictures of the scientists in various high governmental roles and also members of congress. The pictures were not small and there was basically one page of pictures - not very many!!

So, think of spending time in Washington, Dr. Physicist. The country needs us.