Science and politics are irrevocably intertwined. From whether or not we should conduct research using embryonic stem cells to whether or not the nation should take action against climate change, science and politics are in an eternal dance.
Given that so many scientific conversations are becoming increasingly debated topics, such as climate change, the role of scientists in these debates cannot be overstated. Ultimately, while politicians can discuss how research should or should not be used, experts are the only individuals who truly have the qualifications to speak about what the research itself says. To put it simply, politicians need the expertise of scientists in order to do their jobs properly.
Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. We need scientists. Knowing the facts is the minimum we need for a sensible approach to negotiations. -David Donoghue
Monday, more than 3,480 scientists came together to meet this need and to support the United Nations’ nuclear ban negotiations. The individuals – who came from more than 80 countries and included 28 Nobel Laureates and a former US Secretary of Defense – signed a letter that was delivered to Her Excellency Ms. Elayne Whyte Gómez from Costa Rica, who is presiding over the negotiations.
The goal was to urge the UN to stigmatize nuclear weapons like biological and chemical weapons, with the ultimate mission being to create a “world free of these weapons of mass destruction.” The United States and a number of other nations that actually have nuclear weapons boycotted the talks, saying that “the time was not right and that a ban would be ineffective.”
That said, the talks are supported by 120 nations.
At an event held yesterday at the U.N., Permanent Representative of Ireland to the United Nations, David Donoghue, noted that these exchanges between scientists and diplomats are incredibly important:
Reading the [letter] left no one in doubt about the unimaginable damage that would be done to human health, to animal health, and to the health of the planet if nuclear weapons were to explode. We see the scientific community as vital partners in what we are doing.
Despite the Pentagon’s assertion that a few hundred nuclear weapons would suffice for “rock-solid deterrence,” the United States and Russia are in possession of a combined 14,000. As the Future of Life Institute notes, many of these are on “hair-trigger alert and ready to be launched on a minute’s notice.”
In 2011, global annual expenditures on nuclear weapons were estimated to be $105 billion – or $12 million an hour. Many scientists believe these funds should be redirected toward meeting human needs. For example, official development assistance – the money given by developed nations to developing nations – totaled $128.7 billion in 2010. Current nuclear weapons spending is equal to 80% of this sum.
Physicist Freeman Dyson, who is credited with conceiving of what is known as the “Dyson Sphere,” is one of the many notable scientists who signed the Future of Life’s letter supporting the stigmatization of nuclear weapons.
He explains, “scientists are supposed to be interested in bombs because we learned how to make bombs. I don’t think that that’s the main qualification for scientists to be concerned now.” He continued by noting that scientists’ familiarity with collaboration puts them in a unique position to negotiate and support talks, “We are running an operation that works, and we are accustomed to working as friends with people all over the world in all kinds of countries with all kinds of religions and political systems. That’s why we are useful in dealing with problems of weapons.”
Although he doesn’t believe the UN will decide anything during these specific talks, he notes that the important thing is starting conversations and taking a stand, “somebody’s going to take a big step then the rest of the world will follow.”
The first step, of course, is bringing people together who have the opportunity to influence people or governments on a larger scale. Dyson believes that eradicating nuclear weapons will be easy—or at least, much easier—once those in power come together and stand their ground: “I think that it will be, of course, an easy thing to do once you’ve made up your mind. It turned out the important step is to say ‘we don’t need those damn things,’ and actually, you don’t.”
But what about once we do ban nuclear weapons? How do we verify that they really are gone? Experts, says Dyson, work out elaborate systems to verify that there aren’t nukes “lying around” (through the detection of radioactive particles, for example), but he doesn’t believe those verification systems are necessary. In fact, in the case of biological weapons, a good verification system doesn’t exist. To Dyson, the verification isn’t important or necessary.
“You won’t get rid of them all together right away,” he notes, “but it’s important countries announce publicly to get rid of them. That’s already a big step….you want big steps, and not small steps.”
Note: This interview has been slightly edited for clarity and brevity.