Ted Hsu: From physics PhD to Canadian parliament
A former nuclear physicist and investment banker now represents the district of Kingston and the Islands, Ontario, in Canada's House of Commons.
October 31, 2012Published: October 31, 2012
By Toni Feder
"I believe that a government that can accept criticism and embrace inconvenient facts will be a more honest government and make smarter decisions for a stronger Canada," said Ted Hsu in a rousing speech at the Death of Evidence rally in Ottawa this past July. Some 2000 protesters were there to oppose actions by Prime Minister Stephen Harper's ruling Conservative Party. The rally was a "landmark event," Hsu says. "I don't think scientists have been engaged to that extent before."
A physicist by training, Hsu was elected to parliament in May 2011 to represent Kingston and the Islands, Ontario. He also serves as science and technology critic for the opposition Liberal Party: "My job is to keep up the political pressure on the minister of state for science and technology," he says.
Ted Hsu speaks at the 10 July Death of Evidence rally on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. A video of Hsu's speech is available here. CREDIT: Sam Gregory
Hsu's career took him from theoretical physics, to finance, to stay-at-home dad, to a nonprofit company promoting sustainable energy, to politics. He says the best part about his 14-hour-plus days in Parliament is the "ability to serve the community using experience I have. Not just Kingston, but also the scientific and environmental communities." Being an official critic, he says, gives him "a significant voice."
Physics Today's Toni Feder spoke with Hsu in August.
PT: How can you, as a scientist in government, make a difference?
HSU: One goal is to prove that it matters for scientists to be in the House of Commons. I have been pushing hard on things I think would fulfill that. One is cuts to funding. I am in a position to understand and explain to people the importance of research. When the recent budget cuts were announced for NSERC [the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council], I called my contacts from when I was a postdoc at UBC [the University of British Columbia] and got good feedback. I am also working on this thing about allowing scientists to speak about their research.
PT: You are referring to the muzzle on government employees, including scientists.
HSU: The current government always has control of what information is going out. They put a tight lid on communications. The Canadian federal government requires its workers to check with staff—ultimately political staff—before communicating with the press or the public. One famous example was a Department of Fisheries and Oceans scientist who was prevented from talking to the press about a paper that she had published in Science regarding salmon genetics. Salmon can be a politically sensitive subject in Canada.
My job is to communicate the things they are not communicating. We are not going to get them to reverse the communications policy right away, but if we explain to the public what is wrong with the policy, they will apply pressure. [The government] will respond when the public is upset.
PT: Earlier this year, when I wrote about cuts to funding [see Physics Today, July 2012, page 20], some researchers I spoke with said that the Harper government is antiscience. Would you agree with that?
HSU: No, not in the sense that they know the value of R&D in job creation, and innovation in business. What they want is not bad, but doing it at the expense of basic research and other science for the public good is not good.
PT: What would be an example?
HSU: The Experimental Lakes Area was closed. They are used by the whole world. You could pollute the lakes on purpose—pour mercury in and watch over a decade. This has been used, for example, to see what happens to the ecosystem. They also have polluted [the lakes] with phosphates to monitor the effects on algae growth. They have put in acid rain. This has provided solid evidence to support government policies to protect freshwater ecosystems around the world. The research lab cost $2 million a year. The government decided to stop funding it.
PT: Let's hear about your varied career. To start with, why did you go into physics?
HSU: I got into physics as a little kid, reading a lot of astronomy books. I liked the ability to predict things, orbits, what happens in the sky, the idea of going far away. That was exciting for a little kid.
When I went to university, one thing that helped me get interested in physics research was summer jobs paid for by NSERC during each of the four years I was a physics undergraduate. The first summer I worked in a nuclear physics group at Queen's University [at Kingston]. The second year in a low-temperature lab. The third year I went west and worked on computer code for stellar evolution, and the last year I did more theoretical work.
PT: You did your PhD at Princeton University on high-temperature superconductivity and the Hubbard model for the strongly interacting electrons in those superconductors. How was that?
HSU: When I went to Princeton, I was not sure what I would study, but got interested in condensed-matter theory. Not until half way through my first year did I get up my courage to talk to Phil Anderson [who became my adviser]. I got great exposure to a very prominent lab and lots of very smart people to interact with. I felt close to things going on.
PT: After your PhD you spent just a few years in research.
HSU: The first thing I did was a postdoc at UBC. Later I lived and worked in France. I spent a year at Grenoble, at the CNRS center for very low temperatures. After that I came back and worked at AECL [Atomic Energy of Canada Limited] in Chalk River, Ontario. I started out in a theoretical-physics group that got folded into a neutron-scattering group.
Another theorist and I did one experiment. We did it almost on a dare. It was to investigate the importance of multiple scattering of neutrons when probing strains deep inside samples of steel. In the course of doing that investigation we realized that there was a way to probe a bit deeper inside samples that hadn't been taken advantage of before. Our technique has applications and [our paper] is still cited. It was part of my diverging, which I did a lot of in years to come.
PT: What prompted you to work in finance?
HSU: I was only at AECL from 1992–94. I was a contract employee. It was a time when permanent jobs in physics were hard to come by. When my contract was about to end, I decided to make a big leap.
PT: Was it a difficult switch?
HSU: I had imagined myself working in the research world. I had to change my mindset, and change my expectations of the future.
A number of my friends and former physics colleagues had made the jump to work in finance, so I decided to give it a try. I responded to an ad in the New York Times, and got the job. The job was in Philadelphia. There, I did research on interest-rate models, using mathematics to construct models for behavior of interest rates.
Now people in business get a formal education in quantitative finance. That was rare then, and they tended to hire people who were comfortable with math and data.
PT: Did you enjoy it?
HSU: Yes. First of all it was new. And you get immediate feedback from the things you work on. You put together a model, and it might be used the next week. I enjoyed learning and doing something that I or someone else would use right away. You end up learning bigger things—how financial markets work, some macroeconomics, and how politics intersects with the markets.
After two years in Philadelphia, the company sent me to Paris. There I worked at the trading desk—not writing models, but using them and providing feedback to the people writing them.
Then I moved to Japan. Someone I had worked with in Philadelphia had switched companies and was in Japan for Morgan Stanley. He recruited me to go to Tokyo.
After about a year and a half, I was asked to take over management of the group. We took orders for equities, sending them to the exchange, working them, and reporting back to the customer. We used automation to improve efficiency and reduce errors. When you send in a stock order, you can't show the whole order. You slowly feed the customer's order into the market, otherwise it will drive the price up—this is bad if the customer is buying; if the customer is selling, we try very hard to not drive the price of the stock down as we sell. You work it all day long, slowly and quietly to get the best price for the customer. We became good at carefully, efficiently, executing orders. We were constantly developing this automated process. It's all common nowadays.
It was fun because I was looking at ways to do old business in new ways. And I had never managed people, business, and expenses before. The management was something that physics did not prepare me for.
PT: After five years in Japan, during which you met your wife, an American, you made another switch.
HSU: After Japan, my wife went back to graduate school in Oakland, California. Our daughter was three months old. I would take care of the house and her. Just feeding her, reading to her, I was missing out on dealing with the dark clouds on the horizon. The mortgage bubble was coming up, climate change was becoming part of ... I realized there were problems that needed to be fixed. I was thinking about these things while I was taking care of the day-to-day needs of my daughter. That is when I got into public policy.
In 2006 we moved to Kingston, Ontario, where I grew up. That year there was a leadership contest for the Liberal Party, which had just lost power federally. I decided to work for one of the campaigns. That's how I first got involved in partisan politics.
I stayed on as a volunteer in the job of treasurer for the local Liberal Party association. I also took a job as executive director of a nonprofit, SWITCH. It was a membership-based organization for businesses involved in energy efficiency, researchers, and public institutions such as utilities. I was doing advocacy and organizing events, and learning a lot about sustainable energy. I did that for three years. That was when a sitting member of Parliament decided to retire, and there was a wide open race to be the next Liberal Party candidate. In a field of five, I won the nomination, beating out a sitting mayor and the dean of the [local university] law school.
You don't find many people getting into politics. It takes a big hit to their careers if they lose. That's a big impediment for certain careers. It's quite hard as a scientist to take time off and be able to get back to your career. I was able to step away from my job because we had savings. But if you are involved in a scientific research group, with grants to get, if you leave that cycle of publishing, and getting students, it would be very hard to get back. That's a big issue in terms of trying to get a diverse representation in the House of Commons or any legislature.
PT: Do you feel close to science in your current work?
HSU: In the sense that I now get to think about science policy, funding for science, how this is connected with the country's overall long-term strategy. One issue for Canada—I think the biggest long-term issue—is productivity. Businesses don't do so much R&D. We rely on natural resources extraction, and it turns out that over the years this, among other reasons, has led to a lag in productivity. This is important because in the future, as Canada's population ages, and fewer people work to support older people, and healthcare increases in cost, we need to get as much out of each worker as possible. Part of this equation involves scientific research and the contribution of scientific research to innovation. So I can see a place for science policy in the long-term strategy.
I am one of the few legislators with a science background. And I have worked in the business and the financial worlds, where changing technology matters a lot. So I have a lot to offer.