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25 Years On Nuclear Safety and More Work to Be Done

By Nithin Coca

The nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists has been a strong-and-steady voice for science in the policy sphere for the past 48 years. At a time when a snowball tossed on the Senate floor is somehow proof that global warming isn't happening, that voice is more important than ever.

UCS got its start as a nuclear watchdog organization back in 1969, decrying the fact that the nation's brightest scientific minds were directed to engineer military technologies rather than solve the world's pressing environmental and social problems. The organization's first big win came in 1972 with the U.S.-Soviet Antiballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty —a landmark in nuclear arms control -- which UCS successfully lobbied in favor of passing.

Since the '70s, the organization's key issues have shifted from nukes to clean energy to climate change. But still, the Global Security Program continues as a keystone, looking critically at the U.S. stockpile of nuclear weapons and asking if they are really making us safer. While the Cold War ended over 20 years ago, hundreds of thermonuclear warheads sit on a hair trigger -- ready to blast off in minutes at the push of a button. And the risk of an accidental launch -- and Russian response -- is higher now than ever due to outdated technology, faulty computer chips, misinterpreted radar signals, and human and technical mistakes.

Pounding the drum in favor of disarmament are Global Security Program directors Dr. Lisbeth Gronlund and Dr. David Wright, a married couple who joined UCS together in 1992. In the last 25 years, they have seen a sea change in the nuclear industry. Why have they stuck around so long? “There are not very many places for technical experts to work on policy issues in a place that is outside of the government,” Gronlund told TriplePundit. “UCS was one of the few places that hired people like us to do technical analysis.”

Global security is a complex subject, with new challenges emerging nearly daily. In order to co-run the program, Gronlund and Wright rely partly on the fact that they have worked together for decades.

“We started working together on these issues back in '80s, doing writing and research, even when we came to UCS,” Gronlund explained. “We sort of divide and conquer – one of us is focused on one subset of our issues, and the other one on the other subset.”

UCS, despite its name, is not just staffed by scientists. Gronlund and Wright work with a dedicated team of communications experts and lobbyists who collaborate with the technical experts to figure out how to push for policy changes and amplify sound, technical expertise and knowledge.

“We've been at UCS more than 25 years,” Wright told 3p. “It's a great environment to work in, very collaborative and supportive, [and a] great staff working with us.”

The duo has accomplished a lot. One of the milestones that Gronlund sees as a model for how the organization can engage with policymakers is a 2000 report from the Global Security Program on Missile Defense, which, at the time, was a major topic in Washington D.C.

The best part is that the report did not live in isolation, Wright said: A whole team promoted its findings and ensured that it reached the eyes of decision-makers.

“We did a lot of technical research," Wright explained. "But then, a lot of what we did was brief members of Congress, getting it out to reporters, trying to take the work we had done and get it out to the people who were relevant.”

It was a success. The missile defense system did not go forward as planned, and for years thereafter, the UCS report was often cited in media stories about such systems.

Moving forward

Though there has been marked progress over the past few decades in global security, there still is much more that need to be done to achieve the ultimate goal – science-based, technically-sound policymaking.

“One of the things that [we] think a lot about is: How do you make policymaking more evidence-based? How do you make technical evidence more a part of how policy is made?” Wright explained. There's no right answer – it's a constantly evolving process. But one thing they do know is that it's necessary to increase the number of technical experts able to play a role in advocacy, public outreach and policymaking, Wright said.

“There are relatively few technical people working outside of government doing the things we do. We would like to see that increase,” he added.

One of the key tenets of leadership is not just how you yourself manage or lead, but also one's ability to ensure that others are ready, and willing, to take your place so progress continues to be made. On this tenet, Wright and Gronlund shine, as they work to increase the global capacity of science advocacy through an innovative symposium they started even before they joined UCS.

“It's an annual meeting that brings together people from all these different countries to talk about technical work, to talk about how you communicate, to learn skills on how to do this kind of work, with the goal of trying to build an international community,” Wright told us. It is obviously a project that both he and Gronlund are passionate about.

To Gronlund, this is a step toward the ultimate goal – irrelevance, in a better, safer world.

“We're trying to make the [Global Security] Program irrelevant,” Gronlund explained. “Getting rid of all these problems so we don't have to do this work anymore.” That is likely far away, but you can be sure that Gronlund and Wright will be there -- testing new ways to communicate complex, technical content, and building the capacity of future generations to do the same, all with the goal of creating a better, safer, more secure world for everyone.

Image credits: 1) Flickr/National Museum of the United States Navy; 2) U.S. Army via Wikimedia Commons

Nithin Coca headshot

Nithin Coca is a freelance journalist who focuses on environmental, social, and economic issues around the world, with specific expertise in Southeast Asia.

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