When all you have is a hammer

Want to extinguish the threat of nuclear weapons? Ask screenwriters and tech entrepreneurs to tackle the problem.

What do you think of when you hear the words “nuclear bomb”? A big mushroom cloud and mass devastation? President Trump and Kim Jong Un trading barbs on Twitter and KCNA? Stodgy meetings among (stodgy) diplomats working for years to hash out minuscule reductions to nuclear arsenals, then hailing them as breakthroughs?

But did the idea of crowdsourcing the location of a missile launch facility in North Korea occur to you? How about detecting or protecting fissile material shipments using blockchain? The intersection of cyber hackers and nuclear command and control, perhaps? A video game that engages the public in nuclear issues? Or maybe the notion that nuclear information is no longer secret but “radically transparent”?

Innovation has come—and is coming—to the nuclear field, but somehow it’s rarely part of the conversation. A giant swath of the traditional nuclear security community—NGOs, academics, think tanks, government bureaucracies and bodies, and activists—continues to approach nuclear challenges in the same narrow ways they have in the past. When Einstein said “the unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking,” he was talking to us.

Now don’t get me wrong. I am part of this community. I’ve been working in the arms control and disarmament sector most of my adult life. I love a good technical fix to a verification problem as much as the next guy (I’m looking at you, CTBTO!), and I would write letters and call my senators to support new nuclear treaties in a heartbeat. But when it comes to taking an active role in carving a path toward nuclear nonproliferation, is that all there is? Is that as much as we can do?

The answer is no. To be sure, scientific expertise and sound policy are essential. But they are not near sufficient to fundamentally put a dent in this existential threat. What we need and must nurture is a dramatically new approach to cracking the nuclear problem, one that actively, deliberately, and productively disrupts the way we’ve all been working until now.

Crowdsourcing, blockchain, video games—these emerging ways of tackling the nuclear threat are the result of intentionally broadening the kinds of skill sets and mindsets attacking this problem. They’re the result of creating easier pathways for people from non-traditional sectors to engage with nuclear security. But these pathways are still few and far between. Most fellowship and internship programs in the nuke security arena—the Scoville Peace Fellowship, the AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowships, the Stanton Nuclear Security Fellowship, and the government’s own National Nuclear Security Administration fellowship program, among others—are still searching for candidates who fit in, not ones who stand out for their diverse backgrounds and perspectives. Are you a scientist or policy wonk? C’mon in! Are you an artist, writer, designer, financial expert, storyteller? Well, we have no idea how to utilize your genius.

So how about we find ways and design programs that allow a scriptwriter to spend six months working in D.C. at a nuke nonprofit? Or that put Silicon Valley entrepreneurs together with nuclear physicists to create venture-like new approaches to nuclear deterrence? If we want to defy Einstein and truly change our modes of thinking, then we need a good shake-up. Not in the form of an explosive tweet from the White House—but in opening our community to fresh ideas and perspectives that hold the power to radically change our future, and help eliminate the nuclear threat once and for all.

Paul Carroll is a Senior Advisor to N Square, a collaborative effort that seeks to stimulate innovation and expand the number and types of actors working to reduce and eliminate risks from nuclear weapons.