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David Kay: U.S. Cold War Mindset is Ill-Suited to the Threats of a New Age
A continuing focus on massive weapons systems and state-to-state conflict may be leaving the United States insufficiently prepared to address threats posed by stateless terrorists and nuclear rogue states, weapons expert David Kay told a AAAS audience.
Kay, former chief U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq, spoke during the third annual AAAS Leadership Seminar in Science and Technology Policy, as part of a panel of influential policymakers and experts that also explored embryonic stem cell research, nanotechnology, energy, and space exploration. He said that institutions and world views dating to the Cold War still dominate policy planning in Washington, D.C., and warned that too little energy is applied to improving on-the-ground intelligence resources or to assuring the security of existing stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction.
"The most important thing in the world today is the security of existing weapons," Kay said. "In Washington, this is a very poorly understood fact of life...There are only a handful of senators and representatives who are interested in securing the Russian or Pakistani or Indian nuclear supply."
He offered his assessment on 14 November to 35 scientists, educators, industry officials and others who were at the AAAS Leadership Seminar in Washington, D.C., during a panel. Joining Kay on the panel were: David Rejeski, director of the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars; Rachel E. Levinson, formerly assistant director for Life Sciences in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP); Bob Simon, currently minority staff director on the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources; and author and space scholar Howard McCurdy.
The Leadership Seminar is designed for professionals from the United States and foreign countries who could benefit from a working knowledge of U.S. science and technology policy; it gives them a crash course in the workings of the White House, Capitol Hill, budget-making, lobbying and the federal science bureaucracy. The seminar is modeled after the acclaimed two-week orientation program that AAAS provides each autumn for its new S&T Policy Fellows, but distills the material into 4 1/2 days.
Kay was the CIA's chief weapons inspector in post-invasion Iraq, and his team was the first to formally conclude that the nation under Saddam Hussein lacked the weapons of mass destruction that intelligence agencies worldwide had expected to find. He left that post in 2004. Currently he is a senior fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, and appears frequently on broadcasts and in print as a commentator on proliferation and terrorism issues.
During the Cold War, Kay told the AAAS audience, the dynamics of global conflict offered choices that were, in a sense, simpler: The key for the United States was to match and then exceed the Soviet Union in defense spending, nuclear arsenals and the development of new weapons.
Today, however, such wealth of resources and power is of less use. Many enemies or potential enemies "are failed states and people who don't recognize the legitimacy of the state system," he said. And, he added, many terrorists—and perhaps some within Iran's leadership—are not deterred by the threat of nuclear retaliation, even if that would result in the destruction of whole cities.
When combatants believe they will be rewarded in heaven for dying in a holy cause, Kay said, "deterrence falls away." That makes it imperative that the U.S. be committed to controlling existing nuclear stockpiles and to building its intelligence capabilities.
Kay said that when he was head of the CIA's weapons inspection effort in Iraq, the team had only five Arabic speakers. "We're beating our head against the wall if we think we'll get better intelligence out of better satellite capabilities," he said. "We don't need pictures—we need understanding."
Current conflicts require more finesse, Kay said. For example, he pointed to the Middle Eastern nation of Yemen; by 2020, it will still be largely undeveloped, but it will have the third largest population in the Middle East.
"We'd better start thinking about how we can convert failed states into states that have a stake in the world," he said. "It's a security issue, not a charity issue, and that's not well-understood."
Rather than attend to such issues, Kay suggested many policymakers are more focused on large weapons systems. (While he didn't mention specific systems, significant investments are currently being made in a missile defense system; the federal government also is reviewing proposals to upgrade its entire nuclear weapons complex).
"We're heading for disaster when we're spending hundreds of millions of dollars to address threats we don't face," he said. While current challenges are difficult, "it's not that they can't be solved," he added. "If you don't focus on the real issues, you'll never make the breakthroughs needed to solve them."
Other speakers at the afternoon forum spoke on different topics, but all shared a common theme: Policy-making is not a neat, linear, rational process. Rather, policy results from a collision of conflicting interests, and the outcome also can be shaped by well-intentioned miscalculation, blind spots, bad intelligence and wrong assumptions.
Nanotechnology: Over 350 nanotechnology-related products have come onto the market in recent years—from fabric and cosmetics to medicine and medical supplies—and a nano-revolution may someday bring enormous benefits to humanity. But we have limited knowledge, at best, about the environmental and health risks associated with products, said Rejeski, who also directs the Woodrow Wilson International Center's Foresight and Governance Project.
In fact, the federal government has thus far refused to say how much money is being spent to deal with the potential risks, said Rejeski.
Nanotechnology is the process of building industrial or medical products at the molecular level—in the scale of nanometers, or billionths of a meter. A strand of DNA, for comparison, is about two nanometers thick; the diameter of a red blood cell is about 7000 nanometers.
While the benefits might be significant, Rejeski said, there's a risk that some nano-products could be the 21st century version of asbestos unless the products are carefully studied and regulated before they come to market.
"This is going to have enormous impact on medicine," he said, "but it also has toxicology concerned. There is this doubled-edged sword: A lot of things that make it attractive also make it risky."
Today, the technology and marketing are running ahead of risk-assessment and public understanding, and the federal government's regulatory approach seems to be scattershot and permissive, he said. For example, most government research on environmental and health risks of nanoproducts focuses on the pulmonary effects of breathing nanoparticles—but, Rejeski asked, what if other parts of the body are affected? Similarly, he said, about 80 percent of the research focuses on carbon-based nano-products, though silver has overtaken carbon as the most common base for such products.
About two weeks after Rejeski spoke, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) undertook its first effort to regulate the nanotech industry, announcing that consumer products using extremely small particles of silver to kill germs will require the agency's approval. The EPA will require manufacturers to provide scientific evidence that their use of nanosilver in shoe liners, food-storage containers, air fresheners, washing machines, and other products won't harm waterways or public health.
Nanotechnology "is going to be pervasive," Rejeski said. "We need to get the science in front of these questions, so when the public asks questions or regulators ask questions...they can fall back on sound science."
Rachel E. Levinson
Embryonic Stem Cell Research: Levinson, who worked in the White House under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, said the Bush administration believed its policy on embryonic stem cell research would allow for much more federal support of such research than has actually occurred.
Before developing the policy, she said, the president and senior White House staff consulted with experts in bioethics and science, both in and outside of government. The president expressed moral concerns about the process, and in August 2001 he announced a policy that restricted federal funding for embryonic stem cell research to the 78 stem cells that had been isolated and captured, or derived, up to that point.
"In a sense, he was saying he doesn't think it's illegal. He didn't think people should be forbidden to spend their own money on it...but for people who consider it immoral, their [tax] money should not go for this research," she explained.
But in subsequent years, the 78 derivations yielded only 21 stem cell lines; of those, 13 are administered by the federally funded National Stem Cell Bank; and of those, eight are available for research. And all may be contaminated because they were grown on mouse feeder cells.
"When the president made his decision, I thought to myself, 'This is the right line to draw so the research can go forward,'" Levinson told the AAAS audience. "I assumed that as the science went forward, science would drive policy."
But that has not happened, she acknowledged. Instead, states and industry have taken the lead in a patchwork effort to understand and achieve the potential of embryonic stem cells, while nations such at the United Kingdom, South Korea, India and China have moved more aggressively into the field.
Levinson joined OSTP in 1993 and left in 2005. Today she serves as director of the Government and Industry Liaison Office in the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University.
Energy and Climate: Simon, soon to be majority staff director on the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, cited the California energy crisis of 2000-2001 as a textbook example of how policy miscalculations can lead to chaos.
The state began to deregulate its energy market in the mid-1990s, with the assumption that increased competition would lead to a better deal for consumers. But deregulation forced utilities to divest electricity-generation, and that reduced the incentive to build new generators, Simon said. By the late 1990s, California utilities routinely were buying electricity on the spot market.
But population growth and other factors were driving up demand; growth in other states also drove up demand for Western energy supplies, and a drought in the West and Pacific Northwest reduced supplies of hydro-electricity. The effect: Prices went through the roof, and California utilities in 2000 and 2001 at times couldn't obtain enough electricity to meet the state's needs.
Simon suggested that U.S. energy policy is similarly complex and similarly volatile. It relies on markets to set prices and determine future energy-use paths, and assumes that low-sulfur coal and natural gas will be the energy sources of choices in the future. But, he said, projections show that electricity generation by coal and gas is likely to go flat or decline by 2020.
U.S. policy suffers from "an inconsistent and under-funded approach to energy research and development." It is driven not so much by long-term vision, but by short-term events—the weather, competition and conflicts among producers, shifts in current energy prices, and near-term economic forecasts.
"It's sad to say...we tend to be lurching from crisis to crisis," he said.
These and other factors combine to shape U.S. policy on climate change, Simon said. Pressured by auto manufacturers and unions, lawmakers have done "virtually nothing" to require improved fuel efficiency, he said. Meanwhile, the Bush administration favors voluntary efforts by industry to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that are driving global warming.
But with China due to surpass the United States in 2009 as the biggest producer of greenhouse gases, there will be increasing urgency to take action. To make the market more favorable for the development of renewable energy sources, Simon explained, policy would have to create incentives and disincentives to discourage the use of carbon-based energy.
A bill sponsored by U.S. Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.)—described by Simon as "pretty aggressive"—would cap total greenhouse gases emitted by the U.S. electricity generation, transportation, industrial, and commercial sectors, beginning in 2010, to the amount emitted in 2000. The bill also would provide for the trading of greenhouse gas allowances and reductions. The bi-partisan National Commission on Energy Policy in 2004 also proposed a system of tradable permits for limiting emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
Space exploration: The effort to put a man on the moon required a unified and concerted vision, but since that monumental achievement, the U.S. space program has been in a "30-year period of drift," said McCurdy, an author and scholar in the public administration and policy department at American University in Washington, D.C.
In the aftermath of the Apollo program, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and policy makers have been wedded to the space shuttle and the International Space Station. But there has been no unified, realistic vision, McCurdy said—no long-range plan, no agreement on overall objectives.
Instead, he said, there has been a "broad effort designed to satisfy multiple constituencies with different positions and interests, often with insufficient resources." The result: "Multiple, conflicting objectives [that] lead to science policies that defy known laws of physics."
The results are evident in the performance of the space shuttle and the International Space Station, said McCurdy.
The shuttle was designated to perform a wide range of jobs, on a budget—"it was to be all things to all people," McCurdy said—and it has lost two ships and their crews in the past 20 years. The space station was expected to cost $8 billion and to be operational in 1991; the bill had reached $61 billion by 2003, McCurdy said, and the space station still isn't complete.
The Bush administration has sought to return to a more visionary space exploration mission, he said, but plans for returning to the moon and sending human explorers to Mars using existing technology are based on an unrealistically low budget.
The alternative would be to develop new space exploration missions at lower costs—that would encourage innovation, he said, but require greater risks.
Edward W. Lempinen
12 December 2006