APS News

POPA's Short Reports Give Congress Timely Scientific Expertise

The APS Panel on Public Affairs (POPA) has produced a series of “short reports” on topics ranging from energy and the environment to national security issues since 2004. The aim: to provide critical technical expertise to Congress in a timely fashion on policy issues with a strong science or technological component.

The APS membership includes eminent physicists with expertise that is highly relevant to several issues being debated in Congress, and part of POPA’s mission is to provide the Society’s input on those issues to legislators who are responsible for making policy decisions. One way of doing this is through in-depth technical studies, known as full-or short-length reports.

Full-length reports–such as the landmark 1989 Directed Energy Weapons study–are costly and can take as long as three years to complete. By the time a full-length study is completed, Congress may have acted on some of the pending questions–without input from key scientific experts. Short reports are designed to fill that gap. They can run about 20 pages, include a summary of the main findings and recommendations, and can be completed in eight months or less.

POPA members propose topics for short reports to the panel, which discusses the merits, time scale, logistical feasibility and “whether or not the physics community has something intelligent to say about the issue,” says Robert A. Eisenstein, who chaired POPA in 2007.

 “This is very critical,” he says. “We don’t get involved with issues where we don’t have expertise. Our focus is, what can science tell you? We stay out of the political dimension.” If the proposed topic passes muster, a formal charge is prepared.

“The model has worked well because the issues are still fresh in Congress’s mind when we announce our results,” says Francis Slakey, associate director of public affairs in the APS Washington Office.

The office now receives direct queries from congressional and federal offices on specific issues because staffers are aware that APS has expertise and can respond in a shorter time frame. For example, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security recently asked POPA to convene a panel of experts to evaluate the capability of devices to detect nuclear materials and/or radiation shielding.

Most importantly, Congress seems to be open to the physics community’s recommendations. The first short report–on the planned $1.2 billion Hydrogen Initiative–appeared in 2004, calling for a focus on basic research and away from demonstration projects. It concluded that major scientific breakthroughs are needed to make hydrogen-powered vehicles competitive. The report made headlines in several major newspapers, on National Public Radio, and prompted Congress to hold hearings on the issues that were raised in the report (see APS News, May 2004, available online). In the end, Congress implemented a program consistent with the recommendations in POPA’s short report.

In May 2005, POPA released a second short report on nuclear power and  proliferation resistance titled “Securing Benefits, Limiting Risk,” examining technological steps that could be taken to guard nuclear power systems from the threat of theft or diversion. Its impact can be seen in the controversial fiscal year 2008 omnibus spending bill recently passed by Congress (see story, page 1), which eliminated all funding for both  the proposed nuclear fuel recycling facility and advanced burner reactor, restricting the U.S. Department of Energy’s recycling efforts to a research program.

“We’ve been lobbying for these outcomes for the last 18 months, and it’s good to see such clear and unambiguous results,” says Slakey.

Up next are two short reports, to be released this month, one on nuclear workforce and the other on nuclear forensics. The latter examines the potential for nuclear forensics to enhance global nuclear deterrence. The group’s charge reads, in part, “In a world with many nuclear weapons states, the ability of the US to use scientific techniques to identify with certainty the origin of the fissile material used in an attack is increasingly important.”

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Contributing Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff