Report from the FPS representative on the Panel on Public Affairs of the APS

Philip L. Taylor

The Panel on Public Affairs convenes three times a year at APS headquarters in Washington DC, with meetings in February, June, and October. Your representative was not able to attend the first two meetings, as the 2011 FPS elections were not held until March 2012, and the results were not known until too late for him to arrange his schedule to attend the June meeting. This problem should not recur for a while, as the term of office is three years, but the issue is worth bearing in mind when future elections are scheduled.

Had I been at the February meeting, I would have learned that “There are two activities that dominate POPA’s time: developing APS policy statements and carrying out studies. APS statements fall under five topical areas: Education, Ethics & Values, Human Rights, Internal Policy, and National Policy. POPA’s responsibilities re: policy statements include (1) drafting statements on the aforementioned topical areas and (2) reviewing Council-approved statements every five years to determine whether any should be archived. The other major responsibilities of POPA include conducting studies and producing reports. Ideas for studies can originate within POPA or come directly from the APS membership. The studies build on previously adopted APS statements; they don’t create new policy positions, but build on existing positions and advance statements that have already been passed. POPA will often team with another organization to conduct a study, if doing so results in a more expert assessment of the topic. As a rule, a POPA member will volunteer to assemble and lead a study committee through exploration of the chosen topic. The timetable for a POPA Short Report Study is eight months. For topics that require additional time, funding, and/or comprehensive research, larger studies can be conducted as an APS Report Study. Such an effort results in a longer report (ex. APS Energy Efficiency Report). POPA is also responsible for drafting letters under the POPA Chair’s name, and responding to concerns voiced by the Society’s membership.”

The topics already under consideration at the October POPA meeting included many of those that have graced the pages of the FPS newsletter. There were reports on existing studies of the issues involved in extending the lifetimes of commercial nuclear reactors; the surprise for me was that lifetimes of as much as 80 years were discussed. The disruptions that could be caused by shortages of certain rare but critical elements were the basis of another report, which included shortages of an element dear to the hearts of many physicists, namely helium. The report provided several recommendations that have been included in legislation in the House and Senate. Unsurprisingly, nuclear weapons were not neglected, and here the emphasis was on the status of tactical weapons.

I felt I was making a nuisance of myself by asking for an unpacking of the prodigious number of acronyms that flew through the air, but was reassured to find I was not alone in wondering what DNDO was, and why ASP and CAARS were a problem. I learned that it is the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, which was established to help prevent anyone from smuggling radiological materials into the country. The Advanced Spectroscopic Portal Monitor (ASP) and Cargo Advanced Automated Radiography System (CAARS) programs have apparently not been a huge success. This is a topic of a current POPA study. Not every aspect could be discussed, as some of these were definitely FOUO. What's that? I’m sorry — it must be catching — it’s a Federal government designation that means “for official use only”, and applies to information that the government keeps just a tiny bit secret.

In summary, my first POPA meeting introduced me to an environment in which a huge wealth of experience in physics, policy, administration, and government was assembled in the form of about twenty POPA members. They hailed from national labs and think tanks, universities and government departments. I look forward to the next meeting.

Philip Taylor
Case Western Reserve University

These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.