Last week, the United States officially approved the Iran nuclear agreement when congressional opponents failed to round up the votes needed to stop it. The debate was often bitter and polarizing, and the vote in the Senate was divided strongly along partisan lines.
But here is something everyone should be able to agree on: scientists played a highly prominent role in this agreement, befitting the complex, technical nature of the subject. At its heart, the agreement is about making sure Iran, a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, does not use its nuclear power program to build nuclear weapons. It’s an extremely complex and technical issue. We were all well served by having scientists identifying the specific risks, devising solutions, resolving myriad technical issues, and explaining the pros and cons to the American public and Congress during the debate.
The critical role for scientists is perhaps best illustrated by the engaged participation of Energy Secretary Ernie Moniz. As an MIT physics professor and expert on nuclear technology, Secretary Moniz has intimate knowledge of the pathways towards a nuclear bomb, making him an ideal point person in the negotiations and the public debate. As Secretary Moniz stated, “we’ve always said that the science underpinning [the agreement] is the origin of the confidence that many of us should have.”
The fingerprints of trained scientists are found everywhere in this agreement. The expertise of scientists enabled the agreement’s negotiators to understand the current level of Iran’s enrichment technology and capability, develop a set of restrictions that would significantly increase the time needed for Iran to enrich enough uranium for a nuclear weapon, and establish the broad network of inspections and monitoring of the entire supply chain of Iran’s nuclear program to verify that Iran is abiding by the restrictions in the agreement.
When the agreement was first reached, sparking debate across the country, scientists played a major role in the public discussion of the issue. For example, Richard Garwin, a nuclear physicist who helped build the first hydrogen bomb (and a UCS Board member) co-authored a letter explaining the benefits of the deal that was signed by 32 other top scientists, including Nobel laureates and former White House science advisers, and the co-directors of UCS’s Global Security Program. That letter highlighted the innovative nature of the proposed verification measures and bolstered the confidence of many decision makers about the deal’s strength. The letter also warned that, in the absence of the agreement, these experts believed Iran could acquire nuclear weapons capability within a matter of weeks.
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It shouldn’t be remarkable when science plays a major role influencing public policy, but it happens less than it should. All too often, it feels as though we live in an era of anti-intellectualism, “nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge,’” as Isaac Asimov once put it.
That’s what makes this case worth highlighting. Here, scientists were listened to and valued, and their expertise was integral to both shaping the agreement and informing the policy debate. What’s more, the public seems to have appreciated their essential role. During the debate over the deal, UCS arranged an “Ask me Anything” event on Reddit, hosted by two prominent scientists that drew the participation of some 30,000 people.
One can only hope this embrace of science-based input spreads to other important matters of public policy.
Could climate policy be next?