Under Pressure: Long Duration Undersea Research

“The Office of Naval Research is conducting groundbreaking research into the dangers of working for prolonged periods of time in extreme high and low pressure environments.”

Why? In part, it reflects “the increased operational focus being placed on undersea clandestine operations,” said Rear Adm. Mathias W. Winter in newly published answers to questions for the record from a February 2016 hearing.

“The missions include deep dives to work on the ocean floor, clandestine transits in cold, dark waters, and long durations in the confines of the submarine. The Undersea Medicine Program comprises the science and technology efforts to overcome human shortfalls in operating in this extreme environment,” he told the House Armed Services Committee.

See DoD FY2017 Science and Technology Programs: Defense Innovation to Create the Future Military Force, House Armed Services Committee hearing, February 24, 2016.

“Zika has been sexually transmitted in Texas, CDC confirms” (CNN)

The first identified case of the Zika virus acquired in the continental United States has been confirmed in Texas, contracted via sexual transmission. The CDC is expected to release guidelines on sexual transmission, however relatively little is known. While it has been established that the virus remains in the blood for roughly a week, the viability in semen is yet to be determined. Find out more about the latest research developments of Zika virus at CNN: http://www.cnn.com/2016/02/02/health/zika-virus-sexual-contact-texas/

“Egregious safety failures at Army lab led to anthrax mistakes” (USA Today)

An investigation into the Army labs at Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, responsible for chemical and biological defensive testing, was launched last year after it was discovered to be accidentally shipping live anthrax to laboratories across the country for over a decade. The report reveals gaps that go far beyond that of poor leadership, and include a dozen personnel that are being held accountable and could face disciplinary action as a result. To read more about the findings of the Army investigation report, visit USA Todayhttp://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2016/01/15/military-bioterrorism-lab-safety/78752876/

“Biosecurity board grapples with how to rein in risky flu studies” (Science)

The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity met last week to discuss Gain of Function (GOF) studies. A topic of debate for the past several years, GOF studies involving  H5N1 avian influenza and accidents at federal high containment laboratories caused the U.S. government to declare a moratorium in 2014. To find out more about the meeting, including the concerns and recommendations of opponents and researchers, read the article published in Science: http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2016/01/biosecurity-board-grapples-how-rein-risky-flu-studies

A Social Science Perspective on International Science Engagement

In the previous issue of the Public Interest Report (Spring 2015), Dr. Charles Ferguson’s President’s Message focused on the importance of empathy in science and security engagements. This was a most welcome surprise, as concepts such as empathy do not typically make it to the pages of technical scientific publications. Yet the social and behavioral sciences play an increasingly critical part in issues as far ranging as arms control negotiations, inspection and verification missions, and cooperative security projects.

The Middle East Scientific Institute for Security (MESIS), the organization that I have headed for five years now, has developed a particular niche in looking at the role of culture in these science and security issues. MESIS works to reduce chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats across the region by creating partnerships within the region, and between the region and the international community, with culture as a major component of this work.

As with empathy, culture is often a misunderstood and misappropriated concept for most policymakers. Admittedly, it is not something that is easy to capture, describe, or measure, which may explain why it is not a popular topic. Notwithstanding, there is growing evidence that cultural awareness can make a crucial difference to the prospective success of negotiations, inspections, and cooperative endeavors. The Central Intelligence Agency produced a report in 2006[1] that examined how a lack of cultural awareness among those involved in Iraq’s inspection regime in the mid-1990s resulted in misinterpretation of the behavior of Iraqi officials, leading to an assumption that the exhibited behavior was that of denial and deception. The report relayed a wide range of incidents that were misread by those overseeing the inspection regime. These included: 1) Iraqi scientists’ understanding of the limitations of their weapons programs, combined with their fear to report these limitations to senior leaders, created two accounts about how far advanced these programs were; and 2) Iraqi leaders’ intent on maintaining an illusion of WMD possession to deter Iran regardless of the implications this may have on the inspection regime. The report even cites misinterpretations of customary (read: obligatory) tea served to inspectors at sites under investigation as being a delay tactic. These incidents demonstrate that local cultural factors, on both societal and state levels, were major determinants of nonproliferation performance, but were poorly understood by inspection officials who did not have enough cultural awareness.

It has become equally important to consider intercultural awareness when it comes to cooperative endeavors in non-adversarial circumstances. The sustainability of cooperative programmatic efforts, such as capacity building, cannot be achieved without a solid understanding of cultural awareness. Though terms such as “local ownership” and “partnerships” have become commonplace in the world of scientific cooperative engagements, it is rare to see them translated successfully into policy. As a local organization, MESIS cannot compete with any of the large U.S. scientific organizations on a technical level, yet by virtue of its knowledge of the regional context, it has numerous advantages over any other organization from outside the region. Try getting a U.S. expert to discuss the role that cultural fatalism can play in improving chemical safety and security standards among Middle Eastern laboratory personnel and this becomes all the more apparent. For example, a Jordanian expert looking to promote best practices among laboratory personnel once made an excellent argument by referring to a Hadith by the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) that calls for the need to be safe and reasonable ahead of, and in conjunction with, placing one’s faith in God. There have been several studies about the relationship between the cultural fatalism of Arab and Muslim societies, and their perceptions of safety culture, especially on road safety. Although there is no ethnographic evidence to support the claim that this is applicable to lab safety, an anecdotal assessment would strongly suggest so.

Language is another critical area for cultural awareness, as exemplified by the success of a cooperative endeavor between the Chinese Scientists Group on Arms Control (CSGAC) of the Chinese People’s Association for Peace and Disarmament, and the Committee on International Security and Arms Control (CISAC) of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. These groups have been meeting for almost 20 years to discuss nuclear arms control, nuclear nonproliferation, nuclear energy, and regional security issues, with the goal of reducing the possibility of nuclear weapons use and reducing nuclear proliferation in the world at large. Throughout the exchanges, it was often evident that beyond the never-simple translation of one language into the other, there was also the difficulty of differing interpretations of terms. Accordingly, a glossary of about 1000 terms was jointly developed by the two sides to ensure that future misunderstandings possibly between new members or non-bilingual speakers could be avoided.[2]  In a similar vein, the World Institute for Nuclear Security (WINS) has partnered with MESIS in developing Arabic versions of its Best Practices Guidelines. This is certainly not due to any shortage of Arabic-language translators in Vienna, but rather because they rightly distinguish between translation and indigenization. Typically, a translator with limited understanding of nuclear security is unable to indigenize a text in the way that a local expert can. In the case of the Guidelines, the use of local experts went a long way to ensure that the concepts themselves were understood by Arabic-language speakers (a case not very different from the U.S.-Chinese example).

The sustainability of the international community’s programmatic efforts in the Middle East and elsewhere is strongly tied to this notion of cultural context. MESIS manages the Radiation Cross Calibration Measurement (RMCC) network, which is a project that seeks to raise radiation measurement standards across the Arab world. It has always been a challenge to find funding for this network from funds dedicated to nonproliferation and nuclear security as the project’s relevance or utility is not readily apparent to decision makers. More creative thinking is needed here. A project like RMCC does in fact build the infrastructure and capacity needed for areas such as nuclear forensics and Additional Protocol compliance[3], but it also addresses more local concerns such as environmental monitoring and improved laboratory management. These sorts of win-win endeavors require a strong degree of cultural awareness. If a network of nuclear forensics laboratories had in fact been established, funding would probably be secured with greater ease, while sustainability would certainly be threatened, because ultimately, nuclear forensics is not currently a priority area for the region.

In a period when there is a tremendous amount of skepticism about international science engagement, increased cultural awareness may lead to more meaningful and, in turn, sustainable outcomes. One would expect this to be more readily apparent to members of a scientific community. There may be some merit in taking a page out of the book of another community, the commercial product development one. They are keenly aware of cultural paradigms when developing products for different markets, often leading to better returns.


[1] Misreading Intentions: Iraq’s Reaction to Inspections Created Picture of Deception: Iraq WMD Retrospective Series (number redacted), 5 January 2006. Accessed online October 1 2015 via the Freedom of Information Act via http://www.foia.cia.gov/sites/default/files/document_conversions/89801/DOC_0005567895.pdf

[2] Published by the National Academies Press in Washington D.C and the Atomic Energy Press in Beijing respectively, 2008.

[3] The Additional Protocol enhances the Comprehensive Safeguards Agreements that states parties to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty have with the International Atomic Energy Agency

Nasser Bin Nasser is the Managing Director of the Middle East Scientific Institute for Security (MESIS) based in Amman, Jordan. He is also the Head of the Amman Regional Secretariat under the European Union’s “Centres of Excellence” initiative on CBRN issues.

The XYCs of Disasters

As those who follow my work might know, my academic research outside of the Federation of American Scientists examines conceptual issues in security studies. I am specifically interested in how social groups like states come to socially construct terms like “natural disaster” as security issues. In fact, my doctoral research attempts to illustrate the process by which these institutional facts are constructed in the specific contexts of Post-Cold War Germany and Japan. Unfortunately, such theoretical exercises can appear boring to those in the policymaker community who are far more interested in these terms’ application in practice. That said, I would argue that if we don’t understand the process by which security issues are socially constructed, then we can’t hope to understand how and why these terms carry so much weight in the policymaking process. So, on that note, I wanted to take a brief moment to pose the question, “What is a disaster?”

In my forthcoming journal article entitled “Disasters as Institutional Facts,” I seek to lay out a John R. Searle inspired theoretical approach for understanding how the term “disaster” is socially constructed across varying contexts. I will attempt to summarize its key points here as my response to the question. To understand “What is a disaster?,” I argue that we must first understand what counts as a disaster. In the international community, there remains no collective agreement between states on what the X or the C are in [X counts as a “Disaster” in Context C]. In the words of the International Law Commission, disasters are not “a term of art and, as such, lack() one single accepted definition.” In the absence of a collectively agreed upon international definition, we must instead look to the domestic legislation of the individual member states for their own definitions. This means exploring the procedures by which disasters come to be validly declared in each country. Typically, this entails looking at bureaucratic and/or political processes in the absence of written laws or policies that explicitly define what constitutes a disaster.

However, I argue in my piece that merely understanding the X in the [X counts as a Disaster] for a specific country is not enough. A complete picture of disasters requires also understanding which actors (S) are provided which powers (A) in the event of their occurrence. Theoretically, we find this expressed as the S, A, and C in Searle’s function: “We accept (S has the power (S does A)) in [Context C],” where C is the specific country of interest. Identifying the full set of S-A relationships is not an easy task for complex social issues like disasters. Typically, there are multiple levels of S, as one level of S usually possess the power to delegate powers to another level of S (ex. head of state delegating administrative powers to cabinet officials). To understand the concept of “disaster” within a specific context (say Japan), we must therefore account not only for the X but also the full set of deontic powers, including: 1) Actor-Powers (S-A); 2) Power Delegation Practices (S-A-S). This may require some level of abstraction as it may be difficult to account for all the actors involved in the response, especially in an event like the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake or the 2004 Indian Ocean Earthquake and Tsunami.

Some might counter that this account is a bit complicated. I mean, isn’t it clear to everyone that the Great East Japan Earthquake was a disaster? And, isn’t it clear that the Japanese Prime Minister possessed a commonsense set of powers to respond to the disaster? From that perspective, one might argue that 3/11 serves as a paradigm case. And, there would probably be few who would disagree. But, as many theorists have pointed out, an appeal to a paradigm case is not an explanatory move but merely a descriptive one. And, it is quite clear that the powers that Japanese Prime Minister possessed in responding to 3/11 differed from the powers that many other heads of state would have possessed in the same disaster (i.e. context specific). For those reasons, we in the policy community need to have a theoretical foundation upon which to account for the “why in the what.” Herein, I have attempted to provide a basic explanation of that “why in the what” as derived from institutional fact theory. While that theory has its share of critics, I believe that it nevertheless provides a compelling theoretical basis for understanding how social issues such as “natural disasters” are socially constructed into policy issues. If you agree, then the conceptual ABCs of Searle’s X, Y, C, S, and A are quite central to understanding “What is a disaster?”

Michael Edward Walsh is a PhD Student at SOAS, University of London. He currently serves as a Visiting Researcher at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, an international PhD affiliate of the Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main, and an Academic Guest of Universität der Bundeswehr München. This post is derived from his doctoral research as presented in his forthcoming journal article entitled, “Disasters as Institutional Facts.” Original post here.

Report Examines MANPADS Threat and International Efforts to Address It

ManpadsreportblogOn November 28, 2002, terrorists fired two Soviet-designed SA-7 man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) at an Israeli plane destined for Tel Aviv as it departed from Moi International Airport in Mombasa, Kenya. The missiles missed their target but the incident was a wake-up call for governments around the world. Shortly after the attack, the United States created an inter-agency task force to counter the threat posed by MANPADS, with other countries following suit. These countries launched several initiatives aimed at securing and destroying surplus, obsolete and poorly secured stockpiles of missiles; strengthening controls on international transfers of MANPADS; and improving information sharing on the international trade in these weapons. But are these efforts enough?

In a new report,“The MANPADS Threat and International Efforts To Address It”, Matt Schroeder, Director of the Arms Sales Monitoring Project, assesses the terrorist threat from MANPADS, evaluates efforts by the international community to curb this threat, and proposes additional measures that governments can take to further reduce the illicit proliferation and use of MANPADS.

The Federation of American Scientists would like to thank the following individuals and institutions for their invaluable contributions to this report: James Bevan, Jeremy Binnie, Peter Courtney-Green, Gene Crofts, Alan Flint, Andy Gleeson, Jose Manuel Heredia Gonzalez, Paul Holtom, J. Christian Kessler, Stephanie Koorey, Jonah Leff, Cheryl Levy, Maxim Pyadushkin, Steve Priestley, Saferworld, Small Arms Survey and officials from the Organization of American States, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the United Nations Regional Centre for Peace, Disarmament and Development in Latin America and the Caribbean and the Wassenaar Arrangement , along with officials from numerous governments.  Without their talent and support, this study would not have been possible.

Read the report here (PDF).

[X] counts as a [Security Issue] in [Context C]

For over a decade, I have been concerned about the theoretical inconsistencies of the Copenhagen School’s securitization framework. A derivative of the linguistic turn in International Relations, securitization has generated a great deal of scholarly debate within security studies. In my case, I have shared Thierry Balzacq’s concern that the Copenhagen School’s “speech act view of security does not provide adequate grounding upon which to examine security practices in ‘real situations.’” Like Balzacq, I have hypothesized that the social construction of security issues must be audience-centric, context-dependent, and power-laden. Yet, I have found the philosophical and sociological approaches to securitization wanting for a coherent theoretical explanation of the mechanism by which securitization can be successfully achieved in a particular context. This was the primary motivation for my decision to pursue a PhD at SOAS, University of London. I wanted to understand exactly how security issues are socially constructed.

A few weeks ago, one of my FAS colleagues, Mark Jansson, asked me to elaborate on my research. He then posed a set of questions that could serve as a Q&A introduction to my academic research for this blog. Unfortunately, I found it difficult to answer his questions about how my research would apply in particular WMD contexts as the answers to his questions presupposed an understanding of the theoretical debates in which my research is situated. In lieu of a Q&A, I have therefore decided to instead provide the FAS Community with a high-level theoretical overview of my alternative theoretical approach to the social construction of security issues. So, here it goes.

Fundamentally, my research seeks to resolve the mechanism by which the social construction of security issues is achieved. By mechanism, I mean the “how and why a hypothesized cause, in a given context, contributes to a particular outcome” (Faletti/Lynch). As outlined in my as yet unpublished works, my own hypothesis is that the Copenhagen School is correct is asserting that language plays a defining role in the social construction of security threats. Nevertheless, I argue that the securitization framework does not explain how language is used to socially construct a security issue because I reject the notion that the “magical power” of conventional language alone is sufficient to explain such complex social constructions. Furthermore, I share the view with other scholars that the Copenhagen School itself is based upon irreconcilable theoretical inconsistencies arising from its simultaneous commitments to realism, constructivism, and post-structuralism. I therefore have abandoned the securitization framework entirely in search of an alternative philosophical approach.

Although it might come as a surprise, my alternative approach draws not on the International Relations literature for theoretical inspiration. Instead, it looks to the philosophy of the mind literature, especially the work of John R. Searle. In his social ontology, I believe there exists a theoretical framework capable of providing an explanation for how a specific non-security issue can be transformed into a security issue and vice versa. My argument centers on the fact that a security issue is nothing more than a standard social fact, typically of the subclass Searle calls institutional facts. This suggests that there is nothing particularly “special” or “magical” about the social construction of security issues. They share the same conceptual properties as all other institutional facts. They are nothing more than a specific form of “X counts as Y in Context C,” in which the Y is a security issue whose declaration, when collectively agreed upon by a referent social group, bestows certain rights, obligations, and other deontic powers on specific actors as entails from the function: “We accept (S has the power (S does A)) in [Context C].”

Michael Edward Walsh is a PhD Student at SOAS, University of London. He also serves as a senior fellow at Georgetown University and a visiting researcher at The University of Zurich. This post is derived from his as yet unpublished paper entitled, “A Searlean Approach to Security: The Social Construction of Security Issues.” Copyright held by author. Original post here.

Regulating Japanese Nuclear Power in the Wake of the Fukushima Daiichi Accident


The 2011 accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant was preventable. The Great East Japan earthquake and the tsunami that followed it were unprecedented events in recent history, but they were not altogether unforeseeable. Stronger regulation across the nuclear power industry could have prevented many of the worst outcomes at Fukushima Daiichi and will be needed to prevent future accidents.

In a new FAS issue brief, Dr. Charles Ferguson and Mr. Mark Jansson review some of the major problems leading up to the accident including the lack of regulation of the nuclear power industry and slow updates to safety requirements, such as using probabilistic safety assessment (PSA) methods to  improve accident management plans.

Additionally, the issue brief provides an overview of  proposed regulatory reforms, including an overhaul of the nuclear regulatory bureaucracy and specific safety requirements which are being considered for implementation in all nuclear power plants. These requirements including the establishment of earthquake resistant control centers, installation of filtered vents above reactor containment vessels and limitation of reactor life to no more than forty years.

Read the issue brief, “Regulating Japanese Nuclear Power in the Wake of the Fukushima Daiichi Accident” here (PDF).

New Report Analyzing Iran’s Nuclear Program Costs and Risks


Iran’s quest for the development of nuclear program has been marked by enormous financial costs and risks. It is estimated that the program’s cost is well over $100 billion, with the construction of the Bushehr reactor costing over $11 billion, making it one of the most expensive reactors in the world.

The Federation of American Scientists and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace have released a new report, “Iran’s Nuclear Odyssey: Costs and Risks” which analyzes the economic effects of Iran’s nuclear program, and policy implications of sanctions and other actions by the United States and other allies. Co-authored by Ali Vaez and Karim Sadjadpour, the report details the history of the program, beginning with its inception under the Shah in 1957, and how the Iranian government has continue to grow their nuclear capabilities under a shroud of secrecy. Coupled with Iran’s limited supply of uranium and insecure stockpiles of nuclear materials, along with Iran’s desire to invest in nuclear energy to revitalize their energy sector (which is struggling due to international sanctions), the authors examine how these huge costs have led to few benefits.

The report analyzes the policy implications of Iran’s nuclear program for the United States and its allies, concluding that economic sanctions nor military force cannot end this prideful program; it is imperative that a diplomatic solution is reached to ensure that Iran’s nuclear program remains peaceful. Finally, efforts need to be made to the Iranians from Washington which clearly state that America and its allies prefer a prosperous and peaceful Iran versus an isolated and weakened Iran. Public diplomacy and nuclear diplomacy must go hand in hand.

Read the report:

Web version


Farsi Translation (PDF)