Monday, October 29, 2007

Can universities respond to nuclear dangers?

eGov monitor posts a letter from David Willets, the United Kingdom’s Conservative Shadow Universities Secretary, to John Denham who sits on Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s Cabinet as Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities, and Skills concerned about Iranian students studying proliferation-sensitive subjects at British universities. A particularly important observation emerges from among Mr. Denham’s several specific concerns:
“We have a clear obligation to ensure that our own universities, even inadvertently, do not contribute to nuclear proliferation.”
This obligation is particularly relevant as humanity faces an imminent future that George P. Schultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger, and Sam Nunn have called:
“a new nuclear era that will be more precarious, psychologically disorienting, and economically even more costly than was Cold War deterrence.”
These notable authors gathered last week at Stanford University to further explore these new dangers and possible solutions at Stanford University. This work is to be applauded, but as institutions engaged in seeking knowledge and truth, universities can and perhaps must do more to respond to the emerging truth of new global dangers posed by nuclear weapons. The voice of universities may be especially relevant now as the production of nuclear warheads of new designs is reportedly being considered in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Russia.

It is not immediately obvious what sort of response would be appropriate, but three ideas emerge easily that seem appropriate points of departure for how universities might best respond to this global danger:

First, universities could make a statement of policy supporting compliance with the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and related agreements, particularly including the 1995 Statement of Principles and Objectives for Non-Proliferation and Disarmament which is an integral element of the indefinite extension of the NPT. Not only would such a statement be consistent with the educational mission of these institutions, it would also be consistent with emerging university practices such as Tufts University’s April 24, 1999 commitment to “meet or beat the Kyoto [Protocol] goal of a seven percent reduction below 1990 in our carbon dioxide emissions by the year 2012.”

Second, universities could convene institutional review boards, faculty governance groups, or other deliberative bodies composed of experts from relevant disciplines to consider how the work of their institutions might be prevented from inadvertently contributing to the dangers of nuclear proliferation.

Third, universities could form a network to explore the conditions under which the NPT Article VI obligation to work toward a world free of nuclear weapons could be achieved and how they might contribute to the necessary technical and knowledge basis for meeting these conditions.

The danger nuclear weapons pose to humanity is immediate, global, and complicated, and it may be that much work remains to be done to provide uncover new knowledge and prepare today’s graduates to live with the evolving danger of nuclear weapons. Restricting access to education may prove necessary in some unfortunate cases, but it is certainly not the limit of higher education’s obligation to meet this challenge.

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