The Science, Technology and Security (STS) Initiative
November 21, 2008 | Evaluation | International Peace & Security


The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation launched the Science, Technology and Security Initiative in 2003 to develop and maintain a cadre of scientists and other technical experts able to provide independent, authoritative advice on international security issues to members of the policy community. The Foundation’s five to seven year initiative aims to provide about $50 million in grant funding to redress the perceived erosion of such expertise and to accomplish a few very specific goals:

  • To develop a new generation of university-based researchers who, either at mid-career or at the beginning of their careers, will move beyond traditional “bench science” work to engage in public discussion of the relevance of their research to policy issues.
  • To create new ways to connect these producers of knowledge with “consumers” in the policy community of such relevant expertise.
  • To engage experts more fully in the policy process by developing deeper and more systematic communication links among university centers, policy institutes and policy-makers.
  • In March 2007, as the initiative entered its fourth year, the Foundation undertook a review which both built on earlier reviews of individual grants and examined the initiative as a whole. The central findings of the review are detailed in this report.

We begin with a brief set of general conclusions, review the individual components of the initiative, and finish with a look forward and a set of priorities and options for the foundation’s consideration. We also include sidebars on the two issues that were the focus of our interviews with policy-makers. We see the initiative’s impact on Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) as a success story, while we interpret the limited role of grantees in the dual-use biotechnology debate to reflect the initiative’s lack of focus outside the foundation’s traditional emphasis on nuclear and space weapons.


General Conclusions

The STS initiative has made a vital contribution to meeting a key set of inter-connected needs in the international security field in a challenging period of history. In its absence, critical policy debates (such as that over GNEP, described in a sidebar below) might well have omitted consideration of essential scientific and technical factors and turned out differently as a result. The initiative’s long-term approach of building and sustaining an expert community that is engaged with public policy is admirable and attainable. Further payoffs from the Foundation’s investments will be realized during and after the 2008 U.S. election campaign.

Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP)

The Global Nuclear Energy Partnership was announced by President Bush in his 2006 State of the Union address. The proposal envisions a closed, globally-managed fuel cycle that is proliferation-resistant and minimizes waste. Although these goals were welcomed by many in Congress and elsewhere, the means that the Department of Energy has pursued to try to achieve them provoked serious concerns. Moderate Republicans along with Democrats found GNEP to be conceived in haste and quite likely to be counterproductive, particularly with respect to proliferation. The Princeton Program on Science and Global Security along with other MacArthur-funded experts at the Council on Foreign Relations and at George Mason University, developed a technically sophisticated critique of GNEP. They worked with a coalition of advocacy groups that included two initiative grantees, the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), to reduce the proposed appropriation for GNEP by about one-third in fiscal year 2007. Congressional staff and advocates agree that this achievement would not have been possible without the analytical weight and personal involvement of experts supported by the initiative.

Our generally positive appraisal of the initiative’s vision and achievements is tempered to some degree by concern about its execution. Toward the end of achieving greater payoffs from existing and planned investments, we advance several principles for the foundation’s consideration to guide the initiative in the future:

  • Concentrating expertise on specific domains of policy concern.
  • Stimulating collaboration in research, public education, and advocacy.
  • Sharpening the communication capabilities of the expert community.
  • Diversifying the initiative’s outreach, both within and beyond Washington.


U.S. University Research Centers

The university centers are a multi-faceted core component of the STS. As recipients of substantial funding, each institution set target goals for strengthening its scientific capacity in international security areas and pledged to focus on research projects relevant to current and anticipated security issues. Thus, university centers are designed to be long term investments that develop and sustain the expert producers of primary research that forms the core of the community of independent expertise on whom the policy makers as “consumers” will rely. In the short term, these centers are also expected to be producers of knowledge that becomes increasingly policy relevant as defined by the policy community.

The reviewers conclude that the Foundation has made a smart and sustainable long-term investment in independent technical and scientific expertise that can be made available to policy-makers. The timing – during a period of low regard for science in the U.S. political environment - and level of support has been significant. The significance is heightened by the fact that other funders have left the field of science and international security, and comparable alternative sources of support have not emerged to fill this void. In fact, it is fair to claim that without MacArthur’s substantial investment in the university centers, the relevant expert community would be undercut at a moment when demand from policy-makers for their knowledge is finally now increasing.

Yet we also find that the STS initiative has expanded and sustained a not yet fully defined university community, which has pockets of expertise in divergent areas, some of which may be more relevant to contemporary policy needs than others. This lack of cohesion results partly from the dilemma that these university grantees are at rather different stages of program development. Thus, they have a quite varied record of accomplishment when measured against the key factors important to the initiative, such as the creation of new faculty positions, the production of policy relevant research, etc.

In addition, the centers vary in the strength of their linkages to the scientific and engineering (S&E) departments on their campuses, in the numbers of new positions created within tenured and untenured faculty ranks, and in the number of graduate students who are being mentored to be faculty of the future. These variations reflect patterns that could be predicted by the difference between universities with long-standing science and engineering identities and those private and state universities with broader focus as well as the intentions applicants stated in their original proposals. Across the recipients we found that the grants have generally been executed as promised. But we also discovered how difficult it is for new, trans-disciplinary ventures to take root in the territorial domains of traditional disciplines.

We are skeptical that traditional science and engineering departments are promising destinations for junior scholars in the science, technology, and security field, and even tenured scholars may find their positions in these departments uncongenial. On the other hand, it appears that public policy schools may be more promising targets for creating tenured positions than science departments, even though these universities did not promise substantial new positions in their original proposals. In some respects, the Initiative may have overestimated the number of faculty slots to be created by the program. This means that the STS initiative has not reached its stated objective of adding 100 new professionals to the field. The data gathered from the universities and projecting toward the end of the grant period leads to an estimate that 60 – 70% of this goal will be attained, with a heavy concentration in the nuclear and space area. Thus, a security-oriented technical community of significant size and shared identity has not yet been created with MacArthur support outside that area.

Regarding substantive focus, the grantees are working on a diverse array of topics from the contemporary concerns with fissile material disposal and space weapons to the emerging areas of bio-security and cyber-terrorism. Some of the latter are partly dictated by ill-defined, but stated security concerns from the policy sector. The positive view of this is that teaching, research and policy dialogue in these areas has broadened the agenda of the security studies field. The downside may be a lack of cohesion and a thin spreading of expertise.

Thus, save a few notable exceptions, there has not been time, structure or critical mass to permit very much cross-fertilization of research and policy interests across grantee campuses. This prospect of cross-institutional work is an untapped resource with some mid- to long-range possibilities, such as the creation of problem-focused teams and the development of information and data resources of use to the broader science and security community. The AAAS might be asked to play a stronger role in facilitating these relationships, although this function could also be vested among the centers themselves.

Various factors explain why center researchers and research studies have a differential impact in the policy arena, but most often grantees have negligible impact due to lack of expertise and commitment to dissemination, publication, and public relations efforts within university centers. Those centers with the varied layers of the news media contacts and dissemination strategy do this well and received hundreds of ‘hits’ in our data based searches.

Thus far, the initiative has provided direct support for about three dozen post-doctoral and graduate students, who are at particularly critical junctures for career development. Yet a significant number of graduate students currently supported by the initiative are skeptical about a future working on research long term in the academy due to the perceived (and actual) lack of permanent academic positions for scholars in this field. For many of these talented students there are alternatives – research in newer areas involving bio-security and cyber concerns, for instance, may lead to private sector employment.

It is clear to us that a new generation of university researchers who define themselves as scientists and engineers interested in international security policy has begun to emerge. The strongest focus for this community is nuclear and space weapons, which reflects the foundation’s long-standing support in this area. In practice, the initiative has supported pathways out of science and into security studies outside of academia. This is partly because a technical PhD retains its currency as a credential in policy circles far longer than in academic research. There is an interesting and very competent cadre of center “graduates” in NGOs, think tanks, and other non-academic careers, a number of whom had some form of foundation support in their graduate career. It may be that even with MacArthur’s best effort, the more traditional academic career paths will remain limited and fewer.


AAAS Center for Science, Technology, and Security Policy (CSTSP)

The AAAS occupies an important place in the STS initiative. It was expected by the initiative’s designers to serve as politically-neutral, Washington-based “strategic portal” that would facilitate the two-way flow (1) of research findings and expertise from the university centers to policy-makers and (2) of the information needs of policy “consumers” to academic “producers.” In facilitating the flow of ideas from academia to policy, AAAS is building on a proven track record as a leading professional organization that has long provided briefings to Members of Congress, their staffs, and others in the Washington community on policy-relevant scientific issues. International security, nonetheless, represents a new domain of work in which AAAS did not have much of a presence before it founded CSTSP with the Foundation’s support. Thus it is perhaps not surprising that CSTSP’s performance had been stronger in bringing new scientific information to Washington than in bringing Washington’s needs to the expert community. Opportunities for improvement exist in both areas.

On some issues (especially early in the policy formation process) and for an important group of policy-makers (especially in the center of the political spectrum), CSTSP should become a key source of credible information that adds significant value to their knowledge base. At the same time, the most important activities for the CSTSP to undertake are those that initiate and, to a lesser degree, sustain relationships between academic experts and policy-makers. They include setting up personal meetings, networking opportunities, and speaking events on the Hill and elsewhere. CSTSP staff have excellent contacts and up-to-date information about who is working on what. Unfortunately, not all of the academic grantees were aware of or inclined to utilize these services. Well-known researchers from the most prominent university centers rely on their own institutional and personal networks to get their voices heard in Washington. Although they know and respect CSTSP, they simply do not need its help. On the other hand, some personnel from centers that were founded more recently need more assistance than was provided. Some relatively simple, but determined programming can address these shortcomings. For example, travel and sabbatical support that allow center personnel to take fuller advantage of CSTSP might induce the academics to pay more attention to it. The creation of collaborative, problem-oriented teams, as suggested in the previous section, might draw CSTSP’s agenda closer to that of the centers. In its role as an information portal, CSTSP might benefit from opening up the STS network to a greater degree than its designers seem to have envisioned. That might mean encouraging CSTSP to engage more deeply with experts who hail from institutions other than the initiative-funded centers and including such experts on the problem-oriented teams. An “open network” approach would add to the diversity of perspectives and range of expertise that the initiative can draw upon and might make better use of CSTSP’s capacity.

Policy influence is ultimately contingent on trust-based “retail” relationships between experts and decision-makers. Such relationships must emerge through direct contacts that CSTSP cannot continually facilitate. Neither AAAS (nor any other outside entity) can effectively provide “just-in-time” expert support on specific time-sensitive policy issues or a generic “referral service” through which policy-makers will access expertise. AAAS’s need to maintain its neutrality will likely constrain its intermediary role on some controversial issues in which academic experts may want to be involved.

The CSTSP task force on the reliable replacement warhead (RRW) which included several experts from the centers, and its policy-oriented report were clearly valued by many policy-makers. It received wide media coverage and was cited by key members of Congress in their decision-making about the program, notably in the House Appropriations subcommittee report. Task forces of this type make good use of AAAS’s convening power and provide the center with an independent reputation that is valuable in performing its intermediary functions.

One area has been underemphasized by CSTSP is the articulation of the information needs of the policy community to the scientific and technical community that is concerned about security issues. To be sure, such needs are conveyed informally in the individual meetings and other networking activities. Both the grantee meeting and the CSTSP website, if better utilized, could contribute to information flows in both directions, from the policy community to experts and vice-versa, and they could also contribute to horizontal ties among the academic centers as well.

Dual-Use Biotechnology

The possibility that biological organisms might be genetically engineered in order to cause harm has generated a debate among U.S. policy-makers, scientists, and firms, but little formal action. Several grantees of the initiative, including AAAS, FAS, Cornell, Maryland, and Princeton, have taken part in this debate, but they are not generally perceived by policy-makers that we interviewed to be central players at this time. Neither is the traditional biological weapons community, such as the group at Harvard, which has also received MacArthur support. If the foundation chose to concentrate its resources on biotechnological threats, it would be able to build on these elements of the current initiative, especially the AAAS, but it would also need to reach out to a variety of other partners, especially in the private sector, in order to have a substantial impact. One important (albeit daunting) area in which such an impact might be made is international cooperation to raise awareness of the threat and to begin to create global mechanisms that might be capable of taking action to counter it.


Major U.S. NGO Grantees and the Jefferson Fellows

The review also encompassed several of the largest grants to domestic NGOs in the initiative. These organizations generally bring assets and take approaches to the policy process that complement those of the AAAS. The GNEP case (see sidebar above) reveals the value of encompassing advocacy groups in the initiative. In addition, these NGOs often serve as “way stations” for scientists and engineers at the graduate student or postdoctoral level who are exploring a shift into public policy.

The foundation has supported the Jefferson Science Fellows at the State Department as a component of the STS initiative. This program brings university-based scientists to the Department to work full-time in policy-making roles in specific bureaus for a year, with the possibility of continuing the relationship through part-time consulting for the following five years. Sixteen fellows served during the program’s first three years, and eight were selected for the current (2007-2008) year.

Although it serves the same broad objective as the STS initiative as a whole, the JSF program is not integrated with the networks created by other grantees. The JSF grant was for start-up only, and a transition to a federal appropriation must begin in FY09 if the program is to survive.


A Look Ahead: Scenarios, Options, and Priorities

The political, technological, and international security environment in which the foundation operates is changing rapidly, if not radically, over the medium and long-term. In addition to helping the current grantees become more productive and effective, the foundation may be able to anticipate some of these changes and position itself to be ready to adapt to those that are unexpected. In the short-term, the U.S. elections of 2008 dominate the scene. A change of Administration will increase the demand for the work of the initiative’s grantees, regardless of which political party or candidate wins. This demand will emanate first from U.S. decision-makers, but because of the U.S.’s global agenda-setting power, those outside the U.S. may also seek expert input on key issues. This window of opportunity provides an important chance for the foundation to reap benefits from its steady investment over the past few years and, for that matter, the decades before.

At the same time it would be wrong-headed to exaggerate the coming opportunities. Fiscal, bureaucratic, and political constraints abound. In particular, it is unlikely that U.S. politics will be reconfigured to give technical experts significantly more authority in the absence of a landslide election or an external crisis that produces a broad consensus about the goals of policy, as existed during the early Cold War. While we believe there will be more opportunities for consensus-oriented approaches to be effective during the next Administration than the current one, the partisan and factional polarization that we observe in electoral politics is likely to continue to characterize policy debates in many areas of concern to the MacArthur STS community.

The following options and priorities are included in the report:

1. The initiative needs more concentrated policy focus. In its next stage it should define a small set of “domain-specific” projects, in addition to the domain of nuclear and space weaponry, for substantial, sustained investment.

2. The initiative should provide incentives and opportunities for experts at the university centers to learn how to communicate more effectively with policy-makers and the public, especially through the creative use of new media.

3. The initiative should create mechanisms for policy-makers to articulate their short-term needs for information (on a six month to one year horizon) to like-minded groups of technical experts.

4. The focus of the AAAS CSTSP’s efforts should be on the initiative’s key priorities to engage more deeply and effectively with policy-makers.

5. Participants in the initiative must identify and support intermediaries that reach audiences outside of Washington, such as foreign governments, international organizations, business leaders, and state and local governments in the U.S.

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