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Can Scientific Cooperation Help Ease Nuclear Tensions?

The 1957 International Geophysical Year helped build bridges between American and Russian scientists, even as Cold War tensions continued.
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The 1957 International Geophysical Year helped build bridges between American and Russian scientists, even as Cold War tensions continued.

To say that global nuclear politics is in flux is an understatement. President Trump has announced that the U.S. is withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal. Meanwhile, he is planning a summit with North Korea in June. Scientific collaboration and cooperation has played an important part in nuclear diplomacy between the U.S. and Russia for decades, and could be a tool in our shifting relationships with Iran and North Korea. 

Paul Berkman, Professor of the Practice of Science Diplomacy at Tufts Fletcher School, says that the key for negotiators is to balance short-term, national interests with long-term, common global interests, like peace, stability, and sustainability. And science, he says, can help provide that balance and perspective.

He points to the 1957 International Geophysical Year as an example. By the mid-1950s, it was clear that both Russia and the U.S. were developing rockets that could be used to carry nuclear warheads. But, the International Geophysical Year presented an opportunity for both nations to use those rockets to launch science satellites, instead. While the launch of Sputnik certainly competition, the International Geophysical Year also restarted scientific dialogue and cooperation in space that has endured through ups and downs in political relations.

Likewise, the Antarctic Treaty – signed in 1959 – established that continent as a research preserve to be used for peaceful purposes, with no nuclear testing or disposal allowed. And Antarctica, like space, has been a place where scientific relations

There isn’t another continent to set aside, but Berkman says some of the same principles can be applied to both Iran and North Korea. South Korea’s president Moon Jae-in has given North Korea’s leader a USB drive with plans for rail and electricity infrastructure, and Berkman says power, transportation, agriculture, robotics, and sustainable development are all areas where the international scientific community could work with North Korean scientists and engineers.

On the other hand, Berkman holds out hope that dialogue between American and Iranian scientists will continue, although collaboration has been difficult even with an agreement in place. He emphasizes the importance of one-to-one relationships, citing an ongoing collaboration between himself and a Russian scientist, and the fact that the Iran Nuclear Agreement was largely brokered by then Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz (a nuclear physicist) and another nuclear physicist.