Q&A with Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists chief, Rachel Bronson

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Meet Rachel Bronson, the newly appointed executive director and publisher of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Founded in 1945 by former Manhattan Project physicists after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Bulletin is a nontechnical online magazine that covers global security and public policy issues related to the dangers posed by nuclear weapons, climate change, emerging technologies, and other challenges. Bronson, an expert on Middle East Policy and National Security, was previously the vice president of studies at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Carnegie Corporation Program Officer Pat Nicholas recently talked with Bronson about her new role.

Rachel, you were named in February 2015 to be the executive director of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. What drew you to this opportunity and new role?

Rachel BronsonI am absolutely delighted to lead this august organization, one that has 70 years’ experience bridging science, policy, and the interested public. The four key issues that the Bulletin focuses on—nuclear disarmament and security, the changing energy landscape particularly as it relates to nuclear energy, climate change, and emerging technologies—could not be more salient. For example, the P5+1 talks with Iran will transform dramatically the 21st century arms control environment, whatever the outcome.

The US government, among others, is grappling with how to modernize its nuclear force. This will set the course for America’s nuclear arsenal in the years ahead. Not only are China and India pursuing nuclear energy to bring electricity to broad swaths of their populations with a lower carbon footprint than the alternatives, but Russia is becoming a primary supplier of nuclear energy in key regions with significant geopolitical ramifications. We know that cyber attacks are occurring regularly and have become a leading concern of military planners.

These are the kinds of issues that the Bulletin addresses on a regular basis. It is essential that we bring the best minds and research to the debate. The Bulletin serves as one of the most trusted vehicles for doing so. I cannot be more excited to help lead it into its next chapter.

What do you consider to be some of the Bulletin’s stronger suits?

The Bulletin’s brand is based on two of its strongest assets: its leadership and its editorial staff. Its leadership comprises the top science and security experts who set the iconic “Doomsday Clock,” every year. This year, when the clock moved from five to three minutes to midnight, it prompted a worldwide conversation around existential threats that included whether the world was safer or more dangerous than the year before and what were the right factors in making such a decision. I have never seen anything like the coverage and debate generated by the time change, and I’ve been at a number of leading think tanks in my career.

The leadership also serves as the editorial board of our journal, which is available in more than 15,000 leading universities and institutions across the globe. They help guide our crack editorial team, which is another treasured asset. Take a look at our website: its content is rich, unbiased, and nonpartisan, and it gets picked up by the most serious outlets across the globe. Nearly half of our visitors come from outside the United States, because we’re covering issues the world cares about. Day in and day out, our editors get ahead of and behind the news. I don’t think anyone does it better.

Your expertise is on U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia, and the evolution of the partnership between the two countries. How does that relate to the work of the Bulletin?

This past spring I taught a course on “Global Energy” to MBA students at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. As part of that course we took a two-week trip to the Middle East. We considered why a country like the UAE, one of the largest energy producers in the world, is investing so heavily in nuclear and solar energy. We left Jordan the day before Amman announced a $10 billion nuclear partnership with Russia. In Israel we went to Tel Aviv University, a global hub for next generation water and alternative energy technology. Growing domestic energy demands in the Gulf and new gas finds in the Eastern Mediterranean are profoundly changing the Middle East energy landscape and will bring with it geopolitical changes.

My work on Saudi Arabia led me to a fundamental interest in the geopolitics of energy, and questions like what the changing energy landscape means for US policy, and how energy needs in the Middle East are changing regional politics. The Saudis have a huge stake in how their neighbors move forward with nuclear energy, and possibly nuclear weapons – the focus of the P5+1 negotiations with Iran. A huge part of the discussion around nuclear weapons, power, and climate change is happening outside of the United States. We are having our own conversations domestically of course, but it is often divorced from what is actually occurring around the globe. One of my goals is to have the Bulletin engage to an even greater extent outside of US borders, in the Middle East and Asia in particular.

You will be shepherding the Bulletin through its own 70th Anniversary this year. Tell us about some of the plans that are shaping up to commemorate that birthday.

We are truly excited about the 70th and the activities that we have planned. We are working in partnership with the Museum of Science and Industry, one of the world’s leading science museums, to develop a display that engages the next generation in a conversation about the risks, challenges, and opportunities around nuclear energy. These issues have changed rapidly since the public last considered them and we need to reengage in fresh new ways. We are at a pivotal moment, one that is considerably more complicated than the past. We must ensure that science and policy leaders are deeply connected to each other and that the public is fully engaged as well. We anticipate this exhibit will open in the first quarter of 2016.

In addition, we are partnering with the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago on a day-long symposium on November 16th that will tackle some of the key themes of the exhibit. That week we will also launch the first of six next generation writing workshops that pair rising science and security experts with our outstanding editorial team to help tomorrow’s leaders write for a broader audience. This is a unique service that the Bulletin can offer to young scientists and emerging security experts and it has been core to our mission since its founding. The benefit is that we will be introduced to a new batch of experts while they are early in their careers.