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Leader of Venerable Scientific Watchdog Group Renews Focus on “Nuclear Dangers”

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Since the Cold War ended more than 20 years ago, the U.S. and Russia have reduced their nuclear arsenals, and the prospect of a nuclear war has receded from many peoples’ consciousness. And yet the two former adversaries and seven other nuclear powers–including China, Great Britain, France, India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel—are estimated to possess more than 17,000 nuclear weapons. Now as much as ever, we need guidance on how to reduce and eventually eliminate the risks of nuclear weapons.

Charles Ferguson, president of Federation of American Scientists, is seeking experts concerned with "risks of human-induced catastrophes."

When I began writing about nuclear arms control and other military issues in the early 1980s, one of my go-to sources was the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), a non-profit based in Washington, D.C. I was recently heartened to meet the new president of the FAS, Charles Ferguson, when he visited my school, Stevens Institute of Technology. A physicist and former Naval officer with an extensive background in nuclear security (see his biography here), Ferguson feels passionately that scientists have an ethical responsibility “to ensure that the technological fruits of their intellect and labor are applied to the benefit of humankind.” In the exchange below, Ferguson responds to my emailed questions about FAS and related issues.–John Horgan

Why did you accept the leadership of the FAS?

I accepted because of the importance of the “scientists’ movement.” This movement began in the 1940s when many of the “atomic scientists” who had worked on the Manhattan Project recognized that they had a special responsibility to educate policymakers and the public about the implications of “atomic energy” and “atomic bombs,” now called nuclear energy and nuclear weapons. These scientists formed the Federation of Atomic Scientists (FAS) in the fall of 1945. Later in 1946, they renamed it the Federation of American Scientists. I am privileged and proud to serve as the leader of the original scientists-founded organization dedicated to reducing nuclear dangers because I believe that scientists and engineers have the ethical obligation to ensure that the technological fruits of their intellect and labor are applied to the benefit of humankind.

How have the concerns of the FAS changed, if at all, since its creation during the Cold War?

While FAS was initially almost solely concerned about the potential dangers from nuclear technology, FAS, in the two decades after the Cold War, expanded its scope to include projects on the monitoring of conventional arms sales, computer games to educate about science and other topics, bio-security, energy efficiency, government secrecy, green building technologies, and international science partnerships. In the 1990s, FAS had also strayed into more political science issues such as the war in Kosovo and stopping the expansion of NATO. In early summer this year, we just finished a long strategic review and have decided to refocus mostly on nuclear issues (FAS’s core strength) as well as a few other select issues in international security such as government secrecy policy, bio-security, and other emerging technologies that can have catastrophic effects. We also will begin to build back up the federation by forming a network of leading experts to work together on reducing the risks of human-induced catastrophes. FAS is a membership organization and is seeking to bring in new members, especially younger engineers and scientists.

How do you think the Obama administration should seek to curb nuclear weapons proliferation?

The United States needs to address countries’ security concerns. Countries that have built nuclear weapons have largely done so because they have felt threatened by others’ possession of these weapons. Take North Korea, for example. Its leadership believes that the United States has a hostile policy toward it. Nuclear weapons offer a way for weaker countries to equalize or counter great powers such as the United States. The Iranian leadership also has legitimate concerns that the United States, or at least key political figures in Washington, is seeking regime change. Thus, it is not surprising that the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini appears to want, at a minimum, the latent capability to make such weapons.

Do you think the total abolition of nuclear weapons, which Obama had advocated, is feasible?

The United States is the strongest military power, outspending almost the rest of the world in convention arms, so it would benefit the most from a world free of nuclear weapons. Arguably, such a world would be desirable for the United States. But achieving it might not be feasible given the desire of some other nuclear-armed nations to counter the United States, the dominant military power, as well as other rivals. For example, Pakistani leaders fear an Indian attack and have a doctrine to use nuclear weapons first if India even launches a purely conventional military attack that could threaten to overrun Pakistan. Nonetheless, I believe that there is still hope that nations can work cooperatively to address these security concerns and take steps that could lead to eventual elimination of nuclear weapons.

To the best of your knowledge, is the U.S. now developing new nuclear weapons?

To paraphrase the late Carl Sagan, who had served on FAS’s advisory council and was a leading scientist devoted to reversing the nuclear arms race, it depends on how you define new weapons. Keep in mind that the weapons are not just about the nuclear bomb or warhead; the delivery vehicle (ballistic missile, submarine, or bomber) is an essential component to making sure that the overall weapon system achieves its missions. According to the Obama administration’s April 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, “The United States will not develop new nuclear warheads. Life Extension Programs (LEPs) will use only nuclear components based on previously tested designs, and will not support new military missions or provide for new military capabilities.” However, Hans Kristensen, the Director of the FAS Nuclear Information Project, has been analyzing the modernization programs for the delivery systems and points out how the United States is working to create more accurate weapon systems. For example, the United States is spending tens of billions of dollars to refurbish the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles and the Trident II submarine launched ballistic missiles as well as the B-52H bomber and B-2 bomber. Also, the United States plans to spend at least $100 billion to design and build the next generation of ballistic missile submarines. So, although there will likely be no new nuclear missions or new warheads, per se, the weapon delivery systems will all be improved.

What is the current FAS position on nuclear power? Do you worry that the spread of nuclear energy technology might raise the risk of nuclear-weapons proliferation?

FAS does not have a particular position on nuclear power because different people on staff and in the membership have differing views. Many of the founders believed that an international regime was needed to control nuclear energy technology because any nation with access to this technology could with sufficient financial and intellectual resources make nuclear weapons. Although the world has the International Atomic Energy Agency, the so-called nuclear watchdog, which carries out inspections, this is a far cry from having real international control over the technologies for nuclear weapons. Researchers at and affiliated with FAS will continue to assess and recommend ways to improve this imperfect system.

To what extent is the FAS also concerned about biological and chemical weapons?

FAS is most concerned about true weapons of mass destruction that could have catastrophic effects on civilization. Nuclear weapons are undoubtedly weapons of mass destruction because even one relatively low “Hiroshima” yield nuclear bomb could kill one hundred thousand or more people, and a nuclear war would kill millions. It is hard to imagine use of chemical weapons that would kill anywhere close to this many people. Biological weapons, on the other hand, might result in massive deaths and casualties given the scenario and type of biological agent used. For example, smallpox, if made into a weapon and effectively distributed, could potentially infect tens of millions. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the historical mortality rate was about 30 percent. But it is hard to make biological agents into effective weapons especially weapons of mass destruction. FAS has worked extensively on analyzing the threats of biological and chemical weapons. Most recently, Charles Blair, FAS Senior Fellow for State and Non-State Threats, wrote a column in July for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, in which he concludes that the United States “has failed to insist on the scientific methods and legal standards necessary to confirm the use of chemical weapons [in Syria] and, in the process, it is setting a dangerous precedent.”

Are you concerned that the U.S. use of drones as weapons might trigger an international arms race in drones?

I think we are already seeing an international arms race in drones. NPR reported two years ago in June 2011 that about “50 countries are now developing and producing the unmanned aircraft for both surveillance and strikes.” We have seen this movie many times in the history of weapons. One nation’s lead in a weapons technology does not go unmatched for long. As Shakespeare wrote in Macbeth, “we but teach bloody instructions which, being taught, return to plague the inventor.”

Would FAS ever consider advocating a moratorium on weapons R&D?

While some individual scholars and members of FAS could advocate such a position, I don’t think that the organization as a whole would support a moratorium because of differing opinions about the efficacy of bans. But let me give one important example of an FAS-affiliated biologist who made a difference in this respect. In 1966, Harvard biology professor Matthew Meselson circulated a petition that about 5,000 scientists signed and asked the U.S. to stop using chemical weapons in Vietnam and conduct a thorough review of its chemical and biological weapons policies. Further political pressure from Canada and Great Britain convinced Richard Nixon to have such a review performed soon after he became president in 1969. Dr. Meselson then had a chance encounter in an airport with his former Harvard colleague Henry Kissinger, who was heading Nixon’s review as National Security Adviser. Meselson’s arguments swayed Kissinger who argued for Nixon to lead international efforts to ban research biological and toxin weapons via the Biological Weapons Convention and to confine U.S. research to bio-defense. The BWC entered into force in 1975 although the Soviet Union was later found to have violated the ban on weapons research.

Do you worry that scientists as a whole are becoming less socially active than they were in the heyday of the FAS?

Scientists love doing science, and many have always preferred to stay put in their labs or theoretical studies rather than engage in societal issues. While the scientific culture tends to avoid politics, we have thankfully usually had at least a significant, albeit a small fraction, of scientists devoting their expertise and part of time to addressing major security problems such as the threats of nuclear or biological warfare. But even a small fraction of about 10 percent (the approximate portion of the American Physical Society that are members of the Forum on Physics and Society) is still a few tens of thousands of smart people. Getting this number committed to improving the societal good is a great starting level to improve humanity’s chances of survival.

Postscript: If you want to become involved in activities of the FAS, contact Katie Colten, Membership Manager, at kcolten@fas.org, or join at www.fas.org.

About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. rshoff2 11:51 am 11/5/2013

    While recognizing FAS’ vital focus on nuclear dangers -which is a subset of the general application of science- are there any groups concerned with promoting the appropriate application of science? Not only do we have to watch government applying science destructively, we must be concerned with business poor prioritization of scientific research and application. The private sector’s only goal in application of the sciences is to expand markets with the sole purpose of accumulation of wealth.

    I appreciate Charles Ferguson’s position on personal responsibility:

    ” Ferguson feels passionately that scientists have an ethical responsibility “to ensure that the technological fruits of their intellect and labor are applied to the benefit of humankind.” ”

    If we are going to explore science, its application must be directly and indirectly for the betterment of humans and the world in which we live. Otherwise, there’s no value in pursuing it. Fun, sure. Interesting, sure. Mind blowing, sure. But of intrinsic value? Nah.

    Link to this

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