The Manhattan Project

Rachel Bronson's Interview

Printer-friendly version
Rachel Bronson has served as the Executive Director of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists since February 2015. In this interview, she discusses the role the Bulletin plays today in informing the public on threats posed by nuclear weapons, climate change, and emerging technologies. She articulates Manhattan Project veteran and Bulletin co-founder Eugene Rabinowitch’s concerns about the “Pandora’s box of modern science.” She also describes an exhibit opening in May 2017 that the Bulletin is putting together in partnership with the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
November 17, 2016
Location of the Interview: 

Cindy Kelly:  I’m Cindy Kelly. It’s November 17, 2016. I have with me Rachel Bronson. My first question is to ask her to please say her name and spell it. 

Rachel Bronson: Rachel Bronson, R-a-c-h-e-l B-r-o-n-s-o-n.

Kelly: Okay, Rachel, why don’t you start by telling us something about who you are?

Bronson: I am the Executive Director of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. I came here about two years ago. Before that, I was at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, before that, the Council on Foreign Relations. My background is Middle East politics and international security. Issues of nuclear proliferation and risk have always been throughout my work. I tend to be more on U.S. foreign policy towards the region, but certainly my colleagues and those I’ve worked with have always looked at proliferation issues.

Coming out of Middle East politics and an increasing focus on the changing energy landscape, the issues that the Bulletin focuses on, I think, could not be more relevant and important today. It was a very easy offer to accept when my predecessor, Kennette Benedict, left the position. I got a call to see if I would be interested in working with the Bulletin, I jumped. I can’t imagine a more important time for this organization.

Kelly: What I would like to do is just have you talk about the role of the Bulletin, maybe something of its history and how it’s changed, or how you envision it might change in this new era.

Bronson: The Bulletin, of course, is best known for its focus on nuclear weapons proliferation, nuclear risk. That’s what our name and our reputation is built on. But it’s always been more than that, and I think at this point in time it’s required that it be more than that. What do I mean by that? If you go back and look at the early founders, Victor Rabinowitch [misspoke: Eugene Rabinowitch] in particular, he was asked what the Bulletin’s goals are. What does it do?

He said, “Well, first and foremost, it focuses on nuclear weapons. But it’s also about managing the dangerous presents provided by Pandora’s box of modern science.” When he said those dangerous presents, it was like Christmas presents, these dangerous presents of Pandora’s box of modern science.

What our founders understood at that time, back in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, was that science was advancing so quickly, and was going to have massive consequences on the health and safety of this planet. It’s that big: Big, existential issues. In 1945, that was nuclear weapons, but they understood that science was going to bring other big challenges, and that if we could manage the risks presented by science, we could accrue the benefits. But if we just enjoyed the benefits, it was going to a very dangerous and really unhealthy planet. That’s why issues of climate change were being written about in our journal in the 1950s and 1960s, well before it was being discussed in many places.

That’s why today we look at these issues of artificial intelligence and robots and what does it mean. Pandemics, cyber, how big of an issue is that. The key issues for us now really are climate change and nuclear weapons, because those still are the existential threats to this planet. Very different in terms of time scale and how we think about it, but a science-based issue or set of issues that can help secure us or help make us significantly less secure. But there’s others coming, and we know it. We read about these emerging technologies. They don’t yet rise to the level of climate change and nuclear weapons, but I think back to Eugene Rabinowitch. He saw this coming. He knew it wasn’t limited to any one issue.

Where the Bulletin is going is to continue focusing on our legacy issues – which have only become more urgent today – issues of nuclear risk and nuclear safety. But to think about as well is what’s the new science and who are the new voices that we need to surround ourselves with to prepare for what’s to come?

Kelly: It sounds like this should be the role of the federal government. What partnerships have formed, perhaps, or do you see any sort of alliances with some of the federal agencies whose mission is to try to keep us safe?

Bronson: Yeah. Well, I think there was a time where our connections were probably stronger with the U.S. government, because you had scientists moving in and out of government more frequently, or trying to really grasp the ear of the decision-makers. We have fewer and fewer of those people, unfortunately, now. We try to find them to keep us connected to what the research is. Bill Foster, who’s the only congressman on Capitol Hill with a Ph.D. in science, he was on our board. Now that he’s serving, he’s not anymore, but he’s a good friend of the organization and wrote a terrific letter for our annual dinner, and tries to be helpful whenever he can. Those kinds of connections. Rose Gottemoeller, who’s now gone on to one of the most important positions in NATO, she’s been a long supporter of the Bulletin. We try to keep those connections close.

I don’t see that primarily or solely the focus of the government, to make sure that we as citizens are safe and connected to cutting edge science and think about the policies that’ll keep us safe. Of course, that’s the role of government, but government is the tyranny of the inbox. Outside of government, we have the luxury to take the long view and think about what’s coming and help those in office stay focused on what we think is important. We view our role as providing the information that policymakers hopefully will take onboard, then also being a voice for them. We’ve interviewed Secretary of Energy [Ernest] Moniz recently. [Former] Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, an interview with him is in our current journal. You know, bringing those voices back to the public. Our role is both to inform policymakers, but also very much the public.

We spend a lot of time taking very densely written research papers and rewriting them so the public can digest them. It’s not easy, and our editorial team is as crack and terrific as it always has been, but I’ve seen what those papers look like when they come in, and often are very different than what we’re able to put out. That’s a specialty of ours. We’ve been doing it for over 70 years.

Kelly: You’re a communicator of what’s going on in science.

Bronson: Yeah. And an advocate for science and an informed public, and where science and public policy come together. That is something that we advocate for. I think at this moment, you know, scientists feel a bit besieged. It isn’t like it was in the beginning of the citizen science movement, where scientists were revered, and what they said must be right. We have seen in the whole climate debate that is just not the environment that we’re in. The role that we play is to be an advocate for science-based analysis and policy around big existential issues.

It’s not all science, even though we’re always happy to talk about it. But an issue of artificial intelligence — if it’s about driverless cars, it’s interesting, but we’re probably not publishing on it. If it’s about the role of computers recoding themselves and perhaps removing humans from the narrative, then we get interested. It’s those big issues. That’s what the founders of the Bulletin were interested in back in 1945, and that’s what we’re interested now, big existential planet-based issues.

Kelly: Are there other organizations, either in this country or other countries, that are sort of sister organizations that have this kind of agenda? 

Bronson:  Yeah. There are. There’s not a lot, but there’s a few. Some may have been mentioned. Federation of American Scientists, a true sister organization founded by many of the same people that founded us, is an organization that looks at many of these issues. People often mention Union of Concerned Scientists. There’s two others that I think about. There’s the Center for Existential Risk in London, and that’s out of Oxford or Cambridge. We share some of the same leaders there. Then there’s a new institute called the Future of Life Institute. They’ve started with artificial intelligence and they’re kind of backing into nuclear risk, just like we started in nuclear risk and we’re kind of leaning forward into AI. So that’s very interesting. They’re new, and a lot of their leaders are the kinds of leaders that we really should have around us, so we’re trying to figure out ways to partner. 

Then there’s some university-based organizations like Belfer Center at Harvard. Paul Doty, you know, is often mentioned. Stanford and Princeton both have terrific centers. Many are university-based. We’re university-based, but we’re independent from the University of Chicago. We’re located here, our history is here, but we’re an independent 501(c)(3), which is important, because it gives us a sense of independence of action and autonomy that I think is important to what we do.

But the difference between some of the newer ones is we’re 70 years old, and our reputation and integrity is recognized worldwide and takes a long time to build. When we say something, people listen. It’s a weighty responsibility and something we’re very proud of and seek to protect and build on. But it’s pretty unique in the space for that reason. 

Kelly: One thing that, I think, Kennette mentioned, and excuse me if you did, but she said that the citizens are less well-informed now than they were let’s say 50 years ago about some of the science. Have you found it to be the case? If so, has that changed how you have to approach what you offer?

Bronson:  Yeah. It’s a great question, something we think about often. Yes, I think citizens are less informed. You’re not doing duck-and-cover in first grade the way you did back in the day, which motivated people to go on and learn more about it. We don’t feel kind of the insecurity about nuclear attack the way those growing up and remembering the Cuban Missile Crisis would have felt it. It was immediate. It was in the news. They really thought the world was going to end tomorrow. That compelled an attention from the public.

Then the science: I do think people were tinkerers. More people were tinkerers, they were mechanics, and we had more of those. It’s a more natural jump from being a mechanic to try to figure out things work than going in being good at it in high school and then really good at it in college. I think a lot of people were closer to some of the bigger issues or had the training. You had more people working in mines, thinking of my own family history. Today, we’re less connected to that. The generation growing up now, it was the end of the Cold War. The Soviets aren’t even around anymore: they’re Russians, and they’re different. So it’s very different. 

However, there’s two things that are changing. One is the international context. It’s just become a lot more dangerous. Conversation about who’s got their finger on the nuclear button was actually in our election this year. Russia and U.S. relations is starting to feel an awful lot like a new Cold War. It’s scary, and the storms that we’re feeling feel like climate change probably is happening. I think in the last few years, and then in the last few weeks, you have a real return to a desire to get smart about what really is going on around the issues that we focus on.

I took over at the Bulletin in February of 2015. In March of 2015, The Economist had a front cover story, “A New Nuclear Age.” There’s a sense that we’re really kind of moving into something new, or returning to something that was. That’s generating a lot of interest and fear. When people feel that way, they come to us. So we do think it’s a moment. I think 50% of our audience – and it’s a fast-growing audience – 50% is 35 or younger, and 50% is from outside the United States. It’s a global, young audience. If you look at it, and if you mine those, who they are, they’re interested in science and technology policy. 

It’s there for us. I think we need to make sure to keep it connected to what’s happening today and where it’s going, and that’s where the emerging technologies become so important, because those are the issues of tomorrow. I actually think for the next generation, they’re going to learn about nuclear issues by bending backwards from pandemics or artificial intelligence. When they start focusing on those kind of newer issues and realize that there’s others that are that big, they’re going to back into it often. That’s why we need to make sure to have a focus on all of it.

But it all comes out of the University of Chicago. It’s important to think that it’s here. It’s not in Washington, it’s not in Boston. These were the thinkers and scientific leaders and activists who were outside of government, but trying to affect it. There’s a reason that it’s here, and that reason we have to stay true to, which is we’re not a government organization and we’re not solely a university organization. We are heavily influenced by the university, with a significant public interest around us that allowed it to be a launch pad to a movement or a community that’s really quite global now. 

Kelly: It’s just very hard to make predictions of the future as to what might evolve with nuclear weapons given our new president-elect’s positions, which may or may not be what he actually governs with. But he’s laid out some things. Do you want to talk about that?

Bronson: Yeah. The only thing I would say about that is as the public turned away from these issues, it’s not like they went away. In fact, if we stay on nuclear issues for a little bit, it’s a very dangerous time. We have a number of nuclear powers. The traditional ones – we think about the U.S. and the Russians, who sit atop 90% of the nuclear weapons – but France and China and England. But of course, there’s India and there’s Pakistan and there’s North Korea. North Korea in particular seems really bent on creating some very scary weapons, and seem to be willing to not only test them, but possibly use them.

Every nuclear country is modernizing their arsenals, so it’s not just keeping them safe. I think everyone would agree you need to invest money to keep them modernized, but seems building entirely new arsenals. Why that’s so troubling is that our entire non-proliferation architecture rests on the NPT (Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons), a treaty that was signed in ’72, ’73 [misspoke: signed 1968, entered into force 1970]. What that treaty says is that countries without nuclear weapons won’t pursue them, countries with them will try to get rid of them, and everybody is entitled to access of nuclear civilian power.

But it doesn’t look like those with nuclear weapons are trying to get rid of them. We have had a reduction in the numbers and a very important, as late as 2010, signing of the New START [Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty] agreement to really bring down U.S. and Russian arsenals. But these modernization programs look like entirely new and more robust nuclear arsenals. Can we really say that those with nuclear weapons are trying to get rid of them? If we can’t say that, we don’t have much of an architecture left. 

In fact, if you look at the relations between the U.S. and the Russians, that architecture has deteriorated almost entirely. At every opportunity – largely the Russians, but both of us – seem to be walking away from these agreements. It’s an unraveling. Not only maybe are we where we were at one of the more dangerous times, the trend lines are going in the wrong direction at a time when the public has lost interest. 

That’s why I think we see this return of interest. Because certainly now, we have a president-elect who is using language pretty fast and loose when it came to nuclear weapons. Despite the fact that he says he didn’t say that it might be okay for South Korea and Japan to have nuclear weapons, he did say that. He said it very casually, and he didn’t seem to have a deep knowledge of the U.S. modernization programs. He talked about being very behind the Russians in terms of nuclear weapons and our modernization program: not true. In fact, we aren’t deteriorating. We’re investing incredibly heavily. 

If we have a president-elect who isn’t very steadfast on not using language that is very clearly anti-proliferation at a time when more countries have nuclear programs, I think we have a right to be very concerned. I don’t know what the future brings, but I do know interest in the Bulletin is growing in leaps and bounds, because there is a return to finding sources that people can trust to understand the nuclear environment which we live in, because suddenly it doesn’t seem that it was really taken care of.

Here’s something that’s very different about how the public views scientists. When it comes to climate, we know that the view of the scientists — the public is more skeptical. Wrongly, I think, but it’s true. The public has some skepticism. When it comes to nuclear policy, recent surveys show there’s enormous respect for the scientists. In fact, maybe even a little too much. There’s a sense that “I can’t get my head around this, I’m going to trust the scientists.” That being said, there is a trust of the numbers and the facts and the processes, and so there is a trust in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and so we have a very important role at this very difficult time.

You can’t predict the future, but what we can say is the issues we’ve been long talking about are back in the public consciousness. I think it’s incumbent on all of us to come up with new visuals, new diagrams, new arguments, new ways of talking and thinking about it so that we can convince folks, well, we can meet people where they are. We don’t have to take them back to 1945, 1952. We’re here, we’re now, and so it’s really important that we acknowledge that in our conversations with the public. 

Kelly: One thing I know you’re doing is going to have an exhibit opening in the spring. Can you tell us something about that?

Bronson:  Yeah. I can tell you two things about that. One is my general interest in reintegrating the arts into the work of the Bulletin, and then this very exciting exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry. I believe that one of the really most powerful aspects of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists — in addition to the unabashed commitment to facts and bringing the best scientific research to the public about where we are on these issues — we also had the most iconic piece of graphic design of the twentieth century. Which is the Doomsday Clock, on the cover of our first magazine cover. That allowed a huge number of people to access the Bulletin in a way they might not have otherwise been able to. They could understand the clock, and they could follow with it closer to midnight or further away to midnight. Once you got that, the rest was details on why. It was really art that bound the public to what we were doing. 

In our early journal, people loved the covers, because we got the best artists to do the covers. They loved the cartoons. We had like The New Yorker cartoons. It just gave people entrance ramps and exit ramps off and on to our pages. With the change to digital and changing issues around journals, we just kind of lost that. I’m very convinced to bring that back to what we’re doing, and so just gathered a group of leading artists to think about new graphic design and the Web and images and how we can use those to reconnect to our audience. There are audiences out there who are passionate about the advancement of science and what that means and how do we stay safe and secure. It’s not just those of us who are in labs or write articles. How do we broaden this community? I’m very interested in that. 

The Museum of Science and Industry, they are as excited about this as we are. They, in partnership with us, are creating an exhibit that is going to open in May called “Turn Back the Clock.” It’s out there to really demonstrate to a whole new generation that there’s human agency in all this. It’s not just the advancement of science, but you move the clock backwards and forwards, because people get together and make the world safer. They sign arms control agreements, they come together at the Paris climate negotiations, they make commitments and they drive action. That it’s up to all of us, whether as scientists or journalists or artists, to come together.

Working with the museum—they have tens of thousands of school kids coming through their doors every day. To them, who haven’t heard about the Bulletin and probably haven’t heard about the Doomsday Clock, to introduce them and ask them, “What’s your role going to be in this?” Especially now after the election, when it’s been very much kind of in the news. What does that mean? We’ve had an Iran deal. Will it still be there? We think it was a very good deal, with problems, but moved us in the right direction. What role are they going to play in this? And to give them a sense of power and control.

For those who are scientifically oriented, there’s a huge role that the labs — they need new kids coming in and eventually working in these labs, as a lab director said. He wants recruits. For us, we want journalists, and we want artists, and we want broadcast news folks and we want bloggers. What is their role going to be? How are they going to turn back the clock? What do they think should be in the clock? We think it’s climate and we think it’s nuclear risk, with a nod towards emerging technologies. What do they think should be in there? What do they worry about for the planet? What are the big issues that they see coming? 

I couldn’t be more excited about it, and I have so much respect for them that they’re as excited about it as we are. They love the history of how, through the Bulletin and the clock, we were able to just be so dominant in popular culture and still remain that. We talk about the fact that Madam Secretary, CBS’s number one show, did a whole episode on the Doomsday Clock and the Bulletin called, “On the Clock.” We’re still deeply woven into popular culture, and I can’t think of a better platform to speak about these issues than from the stage of popular culture.

That’s what the exhibit’s going to be about. We’re so excited. The museum understood Chicago’s role in all this, and science’s role in all of this, and so when we approached them, it was an open door to say this is a Chicago-based story that has international ramifications, and it’s science-based. So, the Museum of Science and Industry, just sign us up! They’re a first-class organization. They’re going to build an incredible display that’s going to open in May and hopefully run for about a year. 

Kelly: Sounds terrific.

Bronson: Yeah. It’s really exciting.

Kelly: Yeah. 

Bronson: It’s really exciting. 

Kelly: Great idea. I like your interweaving art and science. That’s of course, what Frank Oppenheimer was so passionate about, and the Exploratorium in San Francisco is— 

Bronson: Absolutely. Yeah. And, we just heard Walter Massey, the former president of Argonne, is now the chancellor of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He said that artists and scientists – they see what others can’t see. Both of them share that and they approach those issues differently, but it’s a similar drive of seeing things that others don’t yet see. It’s pretty powerful.

I think we covered everything I thought of coming in. Also having heard Kennette, I think you have a really great story. The only thing I would say is that I think that the University of Chicago — you had referenced this — has some ambivalence about all this. It was here that the research was conducted that had the potential to destroy the planet and almost did. It’s hard to be proud of that, and yet I think the Bulletin gives them the reason to be proud of that.

Because the scientists who were working on this, either because they wanted to advance science and see where it took them, or because they really believed that the Nazis were going to get it first and that the only way to protect the planet was to ensure that the Nazis didn’t get it before the U.S. Those are two driving factors behind those, and they’re noble. 

What the Bulletin became was the place that then individuals could control the science. That science wasn’t going to control itself. That we as individuals, as political leaders, as academics, as journalists, we could control the clock. We could turn back the clock, and it was only going to be through diplomacy and at the highest of levels and citizens demanding that attention, that this technology be controlled.

Of course, that’s true for climate, it’s true for emerging. I think the university has both sides of the story. They have the science and they have the public engagement. The Bulletin is really where those meet, and it was founded here on the grounds of the University of Chicago, with support from the University of Chicago. I think if you put those two together, the university has everything to be proud of.

That’s what universities do. They advance knowledge and they kind of advance thinking about that knowledge and impact and inquiry, which was the University of Chicago’s slogan for their 125th anniversary. Its inquiry and impact, and I think through their science and the Bulletin, you have inquiry and impact coming together. So I think that if they pull both parts of that story together, they have everything to be proud about. Only one piece of it makes it harder, quite frankly.