Physics in Canada / La Physique au Canada - 2011 (67.3)

Interview with Ted Hsu, Liberal MP for Kingston and the Islands Conducted on June 2, 2011

Author(s)
Barbara Frisken
Institution
Simon Fraser University

Preamble  –
On May 2, 2011, Dr. Ted Hsu was elected as Liberal MP for Kingston and the Islands.  I had the privilege of speaking with Dr. Ted Hsu, on June 2, 2011, his first day on the Hill. 

Ted Hsu received his PhD in Physics from Princeton University in 1989.  After postdocs at UBC and AECL Chalk River, he entered the world of finance, working first in Philadelphia, moving to Paris, and then to Tokyo.  You can read about his early career on CAP’s career website: https://www.cap.ca/careers/profile/hsu.html.  It was a treat to catch up with Ted and find out about recent developments.

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BF C What have you been doing since contacted by the designers of the CAP Careers website?  As I recall, you were just about to leave New York for a new position in Tokyo. 

TH C  In 1998 I moved to Japan to work for Morgan Stanley.  My job at Morgan Stanley was to automate some of the trading that was being done in Japan, which normally would have been done manually.  The Japanese stock market was one of the first in the world to go electronic and that made it possible to write computer programs to send orders.  My job was to write computer programs to try to do that in a disciplined and cost-effective manner that would require fewer human traders while minimizing market impact by placing orders to buy or sell stocks without moving the price of the stocks too much. I eventually ended up managing the group that was responsible for handling those kinds of orders. I was using my computer programming experience to write these programs and to write them carefully so that they would hold up under strange situations and not do something silly because of a breakdown of communication at the stock exchange or bad data or human error.  It was also significant that, for the last four years in Japan, I was actually in a management role, something that I hadn’t ever done before.   That was a very interesting experience where I learned quite a bit and that my training as a scientist did not prepare me for.

Then, near the end of my time in Japan, I got married and we had a kid.  Shortly after my first daughter was born, we moved to California so that my wife could go to graduate school and I spent three years as a stay-at-home dad. It was during this time that I started getting interested in public policy. 

As I was taking care of the daily needs of my daughter, feeding her, clothing her, putting her to sleep, reading to her, I started thinking about longer term problems, such as the enormous financial debt that governments have accumulated, environmental destruction, degradation of democratic institutions.  My becoming interested in public policy was a result of worrying about the kind of country, the kind of world, that my kids would be inheriting.

By 2006 we had returned to Canada and were living in Kingston, my home town.  At this point I participated in partisan politics for the first time because the Liberal Party had a very wide-open leadership race and there were lots and lots of roles to be filled, significant roles because it was not clear at all who the front-runner was and there were lots and lots of places for people to jump in and help. Subsequently I was the Treasurer for the local federal Liberal Riding Association in Kingston and the Islands. 

As well as becoming involved in politics, I was also the Executive Director of an organization called SWITCH; where the word SWITCH stands for the idea of changing from fossil fuels to other forms of energy, renewable energy, and energy efficiency and conservation. SWITCH is an association of businesses and also researchers, and educators, students and farmers and ordinary citizens, people interested in sustainable energy.  The goal of SWITCH is to make Southeastern Ontario a center for sustainable energy and to position it to benefit economically from the national and international switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy, clean energy and energy efficiency.  I was the Executive Director for three years from 2007 to January 2011,  just a couple of months before the election campaign. 

In early 2010 I became a political candidate for the first time.  Peter Milliken announced his retirement and there was a wide-open nomination contest in Kingston and the Islands.  We had five people running, including C a former mayor, a former city councillor, and a dean of a law school.

BF C  That is a very impressive field.

TH C  It was a pretty impressive field, yeah.  One advantage that I think I had was that I was very different from the other four in having a science background, an environmental background and a financial background.

I won the nomination contest, but it was a lot of work.  We spent the better part of a year working on that nomination contest.  I built up a good group of really strong supporters.  That was very important in the election campaign.

Then the election came and we had a very strong campaign with a large number of very enthusiastic supporters and a lot of support in the community.  We managed to withstand some very strong national trends in the opposite direction.

BF C   What impact has your physics experience and your physics training had on your career?

TH C  In the financial world, I would say that the main impact is my ability to work with computers, to program as opposed to just using Excel, and to write programs to deal with dirty data.  In quantitative finance, people have to deal with dirty data all the time. 

BF C  What do you mean by dirty data?

TH C     So there are tonnes and tonnes of financial data that come in but sometimes there are glitches and weird numbers appear or there are delays and numbers are not updated or you can have stale data that is just there left over from yesterday.   So having really good data is important but also learning to deal with the situations where the data is not good is important as well. 

As well as the ability to program, the ability to build models also had an important impact.  As with all models, with financial models you have to know when to use the models and when not to use the models.  You always have different layers of models.  You have really simple models that work really well almost all of the time but they’re very simple and they don’t have too much predictive power and then you have complicated models with which you have to be very careful.  Knowing when to use models and when not to use certain models I think is an important skill.  That’s one area that a physics background helps in.  The other thing is, for me in my work with sustainable energy, just having that technical background and that ability to jump in and look at numbers and not be afraid to look at numbers.

BF C  How will your physics experience influence your work on the Hill?

TH C  One of the things that the outgoing Auditor General, Sheila Fraser, mentioned last week as she left her post was that there are not enough people in government who are willing to dig into numbers and spend the time to understand them.  That one of the challenges was to have more people in the upper echelons of both the civil service and the political side who can do this.  This is something that I naturally gravitate towards, quantifying things and thinking about things numerically. I can’t tell you in detail how that’s going to work but I hope I get the chance to be the quantitative guy and make a difference by thinking differently and maybe contributing towards committee work in a way that somebody else would not contribute because of my quantitative background .

The other way that my physics background will help is that I’m a product of NSERC.  Having somebody who has been in a laboratory and done basic research and understands how that works and what changes in funding can do will, I think, be very important.  I know that by any measure funding for research has been going down in Canada and NRC has been directed to do more directed research, and less pure research.  They’re looking for industrial partnerships.  I will need to look into and understand this in more detail, but I do understand that basic research i.e. curiosity-driven research and peer review research is not in political favour now. That is something that I would like to keep very careful tabs on because I come from that background.

BF C   Will your physics experience influence your priorities while in Government?

TH C   Well I’ve been assigned a priority, which is a critic role for Science and Technology.  I also have another role which is a critic for Federal Economic Development in Northern and Southern Ontario. 

BF C   Did your background in physics impact the choices you were offered?

TH C   When Bob Rae talked to me about what kind of sort of critic role I would like to have I told him a couple of things.  One is that in my riding there are a few large federal institutions -- the military base, Corrections Canada and post-secondary institutions – that receive a lot of federal funding so I said I’d be interested in that.  But I also said that I had a background in physics and in international business and the financial markets and the environment and local economic development and that I wanted to have a chance to use that background.  One of the things I want to do is to use my scientific background as much as possible and to prove that that’s a valuable thing for a member of the House of Commons to have.  And I’m confident that I’ll have lots of opportunities to prove to people that that’s a very valuable background to have to contribute to the Members of Parliament here in Ottawa.

BF C   Do you have any idea how many PhD physicists have been in parliament?

TH C   I don’t know if any have.  My brother actually looked through all of the MPs in the last parliament looking for natural scientists or engineers that had more than an undergraduate degree in science or engineering and had worked in the area.  He could only find one engineer and that was Marc Garneau.  I haven’t checked this parliament but I haven’t met any yet so I think it is still pretty rare to have a natural scientist.

BF C   What made you decide to enter politics?

TH C   It goes back to the feeling that the political system doesn’t do a good job of taking care of long-term needs and looking past the next election. I got interested in public policy when I started thinking about what kind of country, what kind of world, our kids and grand-kids would inherit, and what kind of troubles we would pass on to them that we should really be trying to tackle ourselves.  That is my fundamental motivation for getting involved in politics.

BF C   Well, that’s a very good reason.

TH C   I think it’s important for everybody to be able to answer the question “why are you running?” when they enter politics and as they prepare for an election.  As a very famous example, Ted Kennedy fumbled his answer to that question when he was running for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States in 1979 against Jimmy Carter.  It’s very important for you to know the answer to that and for people to know what your values are.  For example, people often ask me about the emphasis on party discipline in Canadian politics and whether I will vote for what I think is right or what I think is right for my constituents, or will I always tow the party line.  In answer to that question, I would say there’s a good reason for the existence of parties and for voting the party line and the reason is that sometimes you vote for something that somebody else wants and the next time they vote for something that you want.  It is that discipline that gets things done and that’s just how [party line] voting works.  But then you have to ask when do you not follow the party line, and for me the answer is that if there is a vote that directly addresses the reason why I got into politics in the first place then that’s when I would be willing to sacrifice my career and vote against my party.  That is why it is important to know why you’re in politics in the first place; I suspect that you probably can’t get much done unless you are really willing to risk losing the next election.  So you have to pick and choose when you will take that risk and to do that you, and voters, need to know why you got into politics in the first place.

BF C  How do you expect your job as a parliamentarian to be different from previous jobs?

TH C   Here is my way of looking at it.  In my past jobs a lot of what I did was quality management.  In physics you have to make sure that you’re doing your math correctly and you’re thinking about things clearly and you’re making the right arguments.  If you’re doing an experiment you’re making sure that you’re constructing your apparatus carefully.  You’re making sure that you don’t make any little mistakes because if you’re working on something that is following physical laws, one little mistake can turn into a big mistake.  Or one little error can turn into a big error.  When working in finance, you’re dealing with millions or hundreds of millions of dollars and you have to be very careful not to make a mistake in the fourth decimal place because the fourth decimal place could be $10,000.  The things I’ve done in the past have always been quality management.  I think whenever you’re working in academia its quality management.  But in politics it’s a real change. It becomes time management.  Time management is more important than quality management.  And you have to be willing to do a poor job of something because your job is so important and so you have to prioritize and just do the things that you can do and use time as efficiently as possible.  So if you’re campaigning, it’s how many people can you meet rather than can you spend an extra ten minutes trying to convince some voter to vote for you because you could.  In that ten minutes you could meet three other voters.  And now that I’ve been elected there’s unlimited number of things to work on so you have to pick and choose and you have to figure out how you can do the most good in the amount of time that you have. So it’s a real change in how I work and it doesn’t suit my personality because I’m a little bit of a perfectionist, which is probably a result of having worked in science and in theoretical physics.

BF C   That does sound like a big switch.

TH C   The first time I appreciated this kind of switch is when Morgan Stanley sent me to management training.  The training involves some role playing activities.  In one of these, they stick you in an office with a desk and a whole bunch of memos and emails and correspondence in a pile.  You are supposed to go through it and you see what you would do with each request.  But about halfway through your time runs out. And the point of this is that you are supposed to go through the list, read it quickly and throw away about 80% of it, or just set it aside and not worry if you didn’t deal with it.  And that wasn’t something I was used to doing.  I was used to saying we’ll start at the beginning and we’ll see how far we can get.  So that was my first experience of this different way of working.  Now I think that everything that you do is a balance between the two but the things that I’ve worked on in the past have been heavily weighted towards the quality management instead of time management.  The thing that’s very different about politics is that it is very heavily weighted towards time management.

The other thing that’s different is that communication is way more important in politics.  Preston Manning has been trying to get more scientists involved in politics…and he said something that I remember because it really, really made sense, that when scientists get involved with politics they have to learn one thing. Scientists will look at a problem and say here is the solution, so this is what we have to do.  But as a politician, you have to take one more step and say here is the problem, here’s the solution and here’s the part of the solution that we can communicate to the public.   And what you can do is only that part that you can communicate.  You can’t actually go and decide this is the solution and then just do it.  You have to decide what the solution is and then you have to decide what you can communicate and you can only do what you can communicate.  So there is this additional step which you have to appreciate.  Communication is really important in politics and it’s no accident that for a politician, an elected party leader or a political leader, the communications person is usually a very senior person on the staff.  The better job you can do of communicating the more you can do as a politician.

BF C   Researchers see increasing emphasis placed by government granting agencies on technology-driven research with short payback periods.  What do you think we can do vis a vis establishing a balance between basic research and application-driven research?

TH C   This is something that I need to sit down and spend a lot of time learning about in detail.  But my feeling is that Canadian businesses don’t invest enough in research and that technology-driven research is something that businesses need to pick up the slack on.  You shouldn’t have only governments involved in that.  Governments really should be funding basic research where the person who does the research is very different from the person who benefits from it. For technology-driven research you can often set up a situation where the person who invests in the research also benefits from the research and when you have a situation like that it’s probably better to involve businesses as much as possible to take the risk and to make the choice that this is something worth investing in.  This is something that I will definitely be more expert in by the end of the summer but my general feeling is that we need to get businesses more involved in applied research and in taking a bigger burden of that research and to let governments fund the kind of research that benefits all of society rather than the person doing the research.

BF C   Do you have a particular example in mind?

TH C   I think NRC is putting a lot of funds into carbon sequestration right now.  Another way to approach this would be to say, Okay, we’re willing to pay $50 per tonne for carbon sequestration.  Which businesses would like to invest money with that price guarantee and try to sequester carbon according to certain standards.  It may be that you will find no businesses are willing to take you up on the offer because nobody really thinks that they can sequester carbon for $50 per tonne.  In fact, one of the questions is what’s the real cost of sequestering carbon.  To my mind there are cheaper ways of reducing the green house gases than sequestering carbon that we should look at first and then at some point we can look at sequestering carbon later on.

BF C   That’s where the ability to take in the numbers becomes really crucial.

TH C  Yeah. 

BF C   Another aspect of the research climate these days is the funding for the Canadian Foundation for Innovation and Canadian Research Chairs programs. The goal of these programs was to bring Canada’s research and development capacity up from 15th place to one of the top 5 in the relative ranking of the Organization for Economic Cooperation.  Can you comment on the success of these programs and do you have views on the future of this agenda?    These programs have been in place long enough (> 10 years) that it would be useful to ask where we are in that ranking and whether that monies had a difference.

TH C   I have not looked into this yet.  I’ve met a lot of the people who hold those research chairs at Queen’s and other places and I appreciate the quality of the researchers that have been funded by that program and am very glad that they are doing their work in Canada as opposed to somewhere else because of the funding available.  I’ll have more to say about that by the end of the summer, I think.

BF C   Do you have any comments about how we might encourage entrepreneurship in Canada?

TH C   I have something to say about that.  I think some of that is culture.  You know there are some parts of Canada that are more entrepreneurial than others, Alberta comes to mind immediately.  I’ve visited Calgary a lot because I have a number of close friends in Calgary.  Just from my interactions with people there I get the feeling that, compared to my hometown of Kingston, people are more entrepreneurial in Calgary.  I would say even in the Lower Mainland like Vancouver and Burnaby people are more entrepreneurial than they are in Kingston.  Now part of that is because Kingston’s economy is fairly highly skewed towards the public sector, which is a more risk-averse culture. But I think that culture is pretty important and that trying to get people to take more risk and not worry so much about failure is probably something we should be nurturing in Canada.  I think that’s something.  But beyond culture there are some other things, like access to venture capital, that are not so great in Canada.  I can see that in Kingston – people looking for medium amounts of capital can’t get it or it takes a long time to find.  Those are the two things that come to mind, culture and the availability of risk capital.

BF C   What particular issues related to science and/or energy do you feel are particularly important?

TH C   Well the big one for me is renewable energy, and clean energy, and making sure that Canada’s economy benefits from the switch from fossil fuels to renewable, clean energy.  It’s just something that we can’t put off.   We know that we are going to switch from fossil fuels to something else over the next few decades.   So the question is do we want to be manufacturers and exporters like Ontario was in the automobile industry in the second half of the 20th  century, or do we want to continue to sell fossil fuels until they run out, and never get a foothold in renewable energy and energy efficiency?  I think it’s a real choice that Canada has to make.  And it’s just too easy to keep digging up coal and pumping out oil and natural gas and selling it and doing quite well but long term that’s not a good strategy.  We should be a country that manufactures solar panels, wind turbines, geothermal systems, bioenergy systems or whatever. I think we’re at the point where Canada has to make a choice and I hope that we make the choice to really recognize that the world is going to move away from fossil fuels over the next few decades and we should get ahead of the curve and make sure our economy is ahead of the curve.

BF C   What is your position on the future of nuclear energy?

TH C   I would like to see Canada build a new research reactor.  This is not something that is party policy.  Personally as far as nuclear power is concerned I would like nuclear power to compete on a fully-costed basis and leave it at that.  By fully-costed I mean making sure we take into account the full cost of decommissioning and waste disposal and the risk of something going wrong.  But a research reactor is a different thing.  It’s easy in the physics community to say “Let’s build a research reactor.  You know it’s not the same as a power reactor” and physicists understand that but the general public doesn’t.  There is still a certain element of fear of nuclear anything, so I think it will require some good communication to explain that no, Canada has a Nobel prize in neutron scattering and we had a world-leading facility in Chalk River that brought industrial and basic researchers from all over the world to collaborate with Canadian scientists, to train Canadian students and bring leading-edge research to Canada.  That this reactor is very old and it’s going to break down in a few years again and we are after all made of nuclei but people tell me the average voter may not even know that or be able to vocalize that.  So if you want to study matter then you need a source of neutrons and if you want to make medical isotopes you need to have a reactor and if nuclear energy is going to be part of the energy mix in the future, then you need to study how materials are affected by radiation.  I think there is a very good case to be made that Canada should commit to build a new research reactor and commit to being in the lead again in research in that area.  So that’s something that I would like to see.

BF C   So that’s a research reactor but that doesn’t really say anything about the future of nuclear energy.

TH C   Yeah, that’s a trickier question. Politically I’m not sure what can be done in the next few years.  I guess I’m personally not emotionally opposed to nuclear energy like a lot of people are but I would say let’s let it compete on a fully-costed basis.  It may end up that it would beat coal.  Coal is receiving this enormous subsidy right now.  If you included all the costs of the pollution from coal in the electricity bill that people get if they use electricity from coal power plants, I think that it would be very easy to switch from coal to renewable energy or nuclear energy.  But nuclear energy is probably more expensive than wind at present if you take into account everything.

BF C   To wrap up the interview, can you tell us a little about the day-to-day life of a politician?  Do you have an office?

TH C   I don’t have an office.  The reason for that is that there have been a lot of people changing offices because the Conservatives want to have all their offices together and in a certain place.  They get to choose first and after they’re done the NDP get to choose their offices and they want to have the good offices so they’re kicking out the Liberals and the Liberals have to move.  So I only chose my office yesterday and it will take a few more days or weeks until the House of Commons gets around to setting up my office.  Until that happens, everything is pretty inefficient because my staff members don’t have access to the secure email system, the calendar system, and all that.

BF C   How many staff members do you have?

TH C  I will have four full-time staff and three part-time students.  Most of my staff are in my constituency office to deal with requests from constituents.  I really only have one student, who is quite a bright guy, working with me who will help me with my critic portfolio.

BF C   And if we had a physics student who was interested in working with you, is that something people can apply for?

TH C   Yes, absolutely.  People can definitely contact me.  Actually, I would invite not only students but anyone in the physics community who wanted to help out to contact me.  By help out I mean don’t tell me what to do or throw information at me and say “here read this”, which is not very helpful because I often don’t have time to take their advice or read what they send me.  I mean look at information, understand it and condense it to make it fit our political goals and figure out how to communicate it to people.  I’m definitely looking for volunteers who would be willing to be part of a team to help out with details of government policy in the science and technology area. 

BF C   That sounds great.  Well, I really appreciate you doing this.

TH C   It was fun and it was my pleasure and good to talk to you as well.