Interview: Dr. Markus Zeier

29. May 2020 Matjaž Lindič, SIQ Ljubljana

Dr. Markus Zeier is the Chairman of the Technical Committee for Electricity and Magnetism (TC-EM) at the European Association of National Metrology Institutes EURAMET and Head of the RF & Microwave Laboratory at the Swiss National Metrology Institute METAS (Federal Institute of Metrology).

1. Markus, you have been in the capacity of the TC-EM chair since May 2019. Can you tell us briefly what your key tasks are as the TC-EM chair and how much time it requires besides your regular work?
I am chairing the Technical Committee for Electricity and Magnetism (TC-EM) and as such the work is related to the implementation of the CIPM Mutual Recognition Arrangement (CIPM MRA) at the level of the regional metrology organisation EURAMET. With this mutual recognition arrangement, the National Metrology Institutes (NMIs) demonstrate the international equivalence of their measurement standards and their calibration and measurement certificates. The work is therefore to a large part related to the submission and review of national CMCs (Calibration and Measurement Capabilities) declared in the KCDB (Key Comparison Database) of the BIPM (Bureau International des Poids et Mesures) in Paris and things related to that, e.g. measurement comparisons. The KCDB has been modernized recently and features now a web-based interface. This is a major improvement compared to the previous system, which involved a lot of manual manipulation of individual files. But it is also changing the established way CMCs are dealt with and I am in the process of defining how CMCs should be submitted and reviewed in the future.

The TC-EM is also keeping an eye on the metrology research programs of the European Union and organizes workshops to foster the exchange of ideas that will be addressed within the next call for proposals. The current research program is soon coming to an end. With the new upcoming program, the European Union expects European metrology to become better coordinated, and as a consequence, European Metrology Networks (EMNs) are being formed. EMNs are supposed to have a strong stakeholder orientation to address big challenges in different sectors as energy, health, economy, etc. Many metrologists, who are in an EMN, might also be in one of the subcommittees of the TC-EM with thematically similar or even equal orientation. One of the challenges currently is therefore also to find out how the subcommittee structure of the TC-EM should adapt to these new groups in order to limit redundancies.

2. How important is from your point of view the decision made at the 26th meeting of the General Conference on Weights and Measures (CGPM) that all SI units shall be defined in terms of natural constants?
In a way it is just a further step in a continuous historical development during which the definitions of SI units have been changed in order to achieve more accurate and stable realizations of measurement standards. Having defined all SI units in terms of natural constants certainly is an important milestone, but it is also not the end. And my understanding is that the realizations of the new kilogram definition are still lacking the desired consistency. So, there is work ahead. I like the analogy I have read somewhere, where the significance of the new SI for the metrological system was compared to the reinforcement of the foundation of a house. The people upstairs don’t actually realize much, but for the structural stability of the house, the changes are essential.

3. What would be the major metrological challenge of our time, for example in fundamental science, industry, society and everyday life?
Obviously, metrology should not just end in itself. It should address challenges societies are faced with, i.e. it should help solve problems, ideally big problems. I agree with this, but I also see a danger that metrology is reduced to things that have an immediate impact. And there is a tendency in that direction with increasingly limited funds. But many innovations in the past were not planned. They occurred because scientists did things that were possible and not just things that were necessary. As of today, time is the most accurate measurement quantity. When the relevant techniques were developed, it was not foreseeable that this level of accuracy would ever be used. Nowadays atomic clocks in GPS satellites rely on this level of accuracy to provide precise positioning information. This is not only a challenge for metrology but for science in general. A way out for metrology would be to have even better coordination and cooperation among the different NMIs, especially at the European level. It seems to me that instead of having the same measurement standards again and again in each country, forces should be joined to have a much more diverse distribution of activities. But it seems that the national pride in having another reference standard for, e.g. time in operation is quite strong and not so easy to overcome.
Another challenge for metrology lies in digitalization and artificial intelligence with all the buzzwords related to it: Internet of things, Industry 4.0, machine learning, etc. How is it going to change metrology itself? What type of new metrological services might be needed? There are many open questions and I think nobody has a clear answer right now, but NMIs are taking the first steps to address these questions.

4. How is METAS as the Swiss National Metrology Institute funded, i.e. to what extent is it financed by the government, what is the proportion of market-based financing (calibration, industry projects), and what share is from nationally or internationally funded research work?
METAS is 50 to 60% self-financed. Self-financing consists of fees (services determined by regulations, such as verifications, type approvals, etc), compensation by the federal government for directly attributable services (operation of national measurement networks and laboratories for other federal agencies), industrial services (calibrations, industrial projects, etc) at about 30% each, and research funds at about 10%.

5. How has the coronavirus pandemic affected your work?
METAS has followed the instructions of the federal administration and reduced attendance at the institute to 30—40% together with other measures to force social distancing. But we are already in the process of relaxing these requirements again. It has slowed down things, in particular lab related work. On the other hand, it was and still is a good exercise in trying out home office and webconferencing. One or the other might have found out that virtual meetings are a viable alternative to face to face meetings. Although I believe personal interaction cannot and should not be totally substituted by virtual means.

6. In what way can metrology contribute to fighting pandemics such as we are witnessing today?
I don’t think I am the right person to answer this question. It is beyond my level of expertise to judge if a better metrological infrastructure in medicine would be helpful to fight a pandemic. Obviously, it is desirable to have reliable results in medical testing. As for the electrical field, contact tracing applications are currently being discussed. Radiofrequency and microwave metrology provide underpinning metrological services for communication devices, i.e. mobile phones, the applications run on.

7. What does Markus enjoy doing when he is not a metrologist?
As a metrologist, I am travelling quite frequently to meetings and workshops at interesting places, which is a privilege. I always try to add at least one day for my private pleasure instead of returning immediately to Switzerland. I like cultural things, music in particular, but also cooking, quality food and good company. When it comes to sports, I basically like anything that involves a ball. I used to play soccer, but this has become difficult because my knees are not in good shape anymore.

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