International Security Studies

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Science, Society, and the National Laboratories: Grand Challenges for the 21st Century

January 15, 2008 // 9:00am10:00am
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Since its inception in 1943 by J. Robert Oppenheimer, Los Alamos National Laboratory has served a vital role in the United States, spearheading cutting-edge scientific discovery and enabling its successful application, said Michael Anastasio at a January 15th Director's Forum. And today, as in the past, Los Alamos continues to work at the forefront of technological innovation, tackling such issues as super computers, nonproliferation, and the peaceful use of nuclear energy, to name but a few.

In terms of national security, Anastasio emphasized that while the Cold War has ended, the national security challenges we face remain daunting.

Finding solutions to confront new global threats will require a sustained, long-term commitment to science and technology, and rebuilding a partnership between the federal government and the scientific community will be essential.

Terrorism, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, climate change, resource shortages: these comprise only a tiny sample of contemporary global challenges. "Complex geopolitics all seem to intersect with nuclear power," said Anastasio, "and this creates a very complicated nexus." Likewise problematic, he continued, is how the role of science in America has changed over the last few decades. During the Cold War we had decisive leaders such as Eisenhower, who in 1953 delivered his famous ‘Atoms for Peace' speech. We also had substantial investment in science education programs, underpinned by a clearly articulated federal stance that the promotion of science and technology was a cost-effective way to achieve strategic objectives.

Anastasio argued that without a redoubling of governmental support and leadership, the United States will be unable to fulfill its various national security needs. "Even our diffuse threats are more complex than those that existed during the Cold War," he said. But with the government relying on the market for near-term goals and its overall lack of focus on science, long-term strategic thinking has declined.

New issues emerging on the horizon, from information technology and cyber security to the unsettling trend of non-state actors who have the capacity to use knowledge for violent ends, will undoubtedly require innovative solutions. "New realities call for bold thinking," said Anastasio, and while both academic research institutions and industry are important to this equation, national laboratories are essential, for they often operate with fewer constraints and are equipped to offer systems-level solutions, thus bridging the gap between discovery and application.

National laboratories are particularly well positioned to address national security needs, argued Anastasio, and he cited counterterrorism as a main example. On September 12, 2001, Los Alamos helped the United States implement a host of new security initiatives. According to Anastasio, these measures have been instrumental to the federal government's larger goal of establishing a more agile and effective national security apparatus. Human genome research, for instance, has assisted in the detection of pathogens such as anthrax, and a number of other important technologies that were "deployed to the field" in the aftermath of September 11th have now been mainstreamed by the Department of Homeland Security.

Unfortunately, he said, much of these developments have been built on yesterday's investment and infrastructure. The percentage of GDP that is directed to national laboratories continues to dwindle; Anastasio surmised that investment is about half of what it was 30 years ago. So what will the future role of the scientific community be in the 21st century? "We need a vision from the highest level of government," declared Anastasio, "one which understands the scope and urgency of today's problems, and one which will inspire and sustain a better partnership between government and national laboratories."

"The solutions to our problems today will be rooted in science and technology," he concluded, "and there needs to be an investment strategy that reaches from discovery science to application science and helps build bridges between them."

 

Experts & Staff

  • Robert S. Litwak // Vice President for Scholars and Academic Relations and Director, International Security Studies
  • Tonya Boyce // Program Assistant, International Security Studies

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