Since the advent of nuclear weapons, the safety and sustainment of the U.S. nuclear arsenal has been underpinned by a highly educated workforce of physicists, chemists, engineers, and computer scientists. The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the government agency responsible for maintaining and modernizing the nation’s nuclear weapons, employs thousands of these scientists at the constellation of national labs and production plants throughout the country. As the Cold War cadre of scientists continues to hit retirement age, NNSA must ensure that it will be able to replace them with equally talented and motivated applicants.1 What if, in the long term, they can’t?

The nuclear community, both on its left right flanks, has ample reason to be concerned about this. Much attention has been paid to funding issues surrounding nuclear safety and modernization, and rightly so. But the problem goes much deeper than money. The United States is facing negative political and cultural shifts that could undermine the health of the nuclear enterprise, and the trends only appear to be getting worse.

Effects of Polarization

Politically, the United States is more polarized than it has been in decades, making the country difficult to govern effectively and making Congress susceptible to playing politics with important issues, including some that might affect the future of the nuclear workforce. A recent example: in November of last year, the House of Representatives passed a provision in its version of the tax bill that would have wreaked havoc on students pursuing advanced degrees, including degrees critical to NNSA’s mission. Had the provision also passed the Senate, graduate students would have been required to pay taxes on the tuition waivers they receive for teaching and doing research.2

Completing a PhD is already a financially difficult endeavor. As one MIT doctoral student explained, taxing tuition waivers would force her to pay taxes on $80,000 while earning just $33,000.3 Thousands of PhD students would be unable or unwilling to continue their studies under such conditions. This matters for the nuclear enterprise because the national labs need a sufficiently large applicant pool with the requisite education, including PhDs, to meet its hiring requirements and fulfill its mission.

NNSA Support

NNSA has taken a number of steps to encourage students to pursue studies in the sciences and provide professional opportunities for students at the labs.4 But if Congress makes it more difficult than it already is to pursue a graduate education, there will be far fewer people in the pool of potential applicants from which NNSA must ultimately draw. A Defense Science Board report from 2008 found that, “in the long term, recruitment of high caliber technical talent for the NNSA and its contractors will be challenged by the general decline in the proportion of U.S. citizens acquiring post-graduate degrees in science and engineering at U.S. universities.”5 Congress came close to exacerbating this problem. If political polarization worsens, there’s no telling how reckless Congress might be in the future, even when it comes to issues related to the safety and reliability of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

As worrying as these political trends are, it is the wider cultural trends that pose a greater risk to the nuclear arsenal in the long run. Throughout the Cold War, science and education were debated, sometimes fiercely, but there was consensus that scientific advancement was essential for the nation’s security.6 The sciences were respected, or at least weren’t demonized, in mainstream U.S. culture and politics.

That consensus has fallen victim to complex cultural trends that could have implications for U.S. competitiveness in the sciences. Recent polling shows that over the last two years, Republican voters’ attitudes about higher education have changed dramatically, with a majority now believing that colleges have a negative effect on the country.7 Universities are seen as a battleground in the culture wars, and science is frequently viewed with suspicion or even hostility by a large percentage of the population. The demonization and delegitimization of science has gone mainstream, with the political party currently in power promoting skepticism about science and using it as a cultural wedge issue in ways that will surely have a lasting impact on our society, especially children.

Not only could these cultural trends make fewer children less interested in pursuing the sciences, it could make those that do less willing to serve a country that appears to disrespect their trade and devalue their contributions. The American electorate and the Congress must recognize that, in the long run, our security depends upon young people having access to a world-class education in the sciences, as well as a culture that promotes science as exciting and prestigious. Otherwise, the qualified applicant pool for science jobs in national security will shrink and its quality will deteriorate, with potentially disastrous implications for NNSA and its ability to sustain the nuclear arsenal. Our society must light the fire of curiosity in the sciences, not extinguish it.

The nuclear arsenal is foundational to U.S. national security. We should not sabotage our ability to sustain the nuclear enterprise over the coming decades by cutting off the pipeline of future scientists who make it possible. The nuclear community must make this case loud and clear.

 

  1. Arrowhead Center, New Mexico State University, Status of the National Security Workforce, March 31, 2008, https://www.osti.gov/servlets/purl/926237.
  2. Steph W. Kight, “Why higher education hates the new tax bills,” Axios, November 25, 2017, https://www.axios.com/why-higher-education-hates-the-new-tax-bills-1513307062-898fd0eb-23d5-4b2b-916b-7c2d428dc158.html.
  3. Erin Rousseau, “The House Just Voted to Bankrupt Graduate Students,” The New York Times, November 16, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/16/opinion/house-tax-bill-graduate-students.html.
  4. Government Accountability Office, National Nuclear Security Administration: Contractors’ Strategies to Recruit and Retain a Critically Skilled Workforce Are Generally Effective, February 2005, https://www.gao.gov/assets/250/245247.pdf.
  5. Defense Science Board, “Report of the Defense Science Board Task Force on Nuclear Deterrence Skills,” September 2008, https://www.defense.gov/Portals/1/features/defenseReviews/NPR/DSB_Nuclear_Deterrence_Skills_Chiles.pdf.
  6. Bruce L. R. Smith, American Science Policy Since World War II (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1990).
  7. Hannah Fingerhut, “Republicans skeptical of colleges’ impact on U.S., but most see benefits for workforce preparation,” Pew Research Center, July 20, 2017, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/07/20/republicans-skeptical-of-colleges-impact-on-u-s-but-most-see-benefits-for-workforce-preparation/.