Episode 34: Secretary Ernest Moniz on the Diplomatic Role of “Cumulative” Science

Over the last 40 years, US and Chinese scientists at all levels have been engaged in broad-based diplomacy, publishing hundreds of thousands of scientific papers together. Recently, amid tensions between the two countries and official and unofficial government actions to curtail collaboration, joint publications have fallen. Ernest Moniz, secretary of energy during the Obama administration, has been a practitioner of science diplomacy at the highest levels. Trained as a physicist, Moniz worked with his Iranian counterpart, Ali Salehi, on the Iran nuclear agreement in 2015.

In this episode, Moniz talks about the ways that science can provide a common language and a sense of trust during diplomatic negotiations. And he emphasizes the importance of collaboration to scientific discovery. Science, he says, is cumulative, extending far beyond the experience of a single person. If collaborations are prevented, we will never know what knowledge we failed to create. 

Moniz is CEO and cochair of the Nuclear Threat Initiative and president and CEO of the Energy Futures Initiative. He served as the thirteenth US secretary of energy from 2013 to January 2017. He is also the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Physics and Engineering Systems emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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Lisa Margonelli: Welcome to The Ongoing Transformation, a podcast from Issues in Science and Technology. Issues is a quarterly journal published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, and Arizona State University.

I’m Lisa Margonelli, editor-in-chief of Issues. This is our last episode of our second season. We’re taking a break until early fall, and we’d love to hear your thoughts about this season and suggestions for upcoming episodes. Email us at [email protected].

For our final episode. I’m delighted to be joined by former secretary of energy, Dr. Ernest Moniz. Secretary Moniz is a nuclear physicist who served as the 13th US Secretary of Energy in the Obama administration from 2013 to January 2017. During his tenure, he played a crucial role in negotiating the historic Iran Nuclear Agreement. In this episode, we’ll discuss science diplomacy, international scientific collaboration, and how to balance national security with scientific progress.

Welcome, Secretary Moniz. I wanted to start by asking you about science diplomacy. One of the interesting things about your career is how you’ve been a scientist; you’ve worked in government; and you’ve spent time at the absolute top of science diplomacy. You’ve been a leader in difficult negotiations, like the Iran nuclear talks where you worked with the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Salehi. What’s your definition of science diplomacy?

Secretary Moniz: Well, it kind of depends upon what you’re doing, but what I would say is if I in particular refer to the Iran discussions, I think what was important with Salehi and I was that we were able to, in some sense, define the problem the way scientists do, right up front. And I think we quickly came to the realization that there was a non-zero solution space, and therefore we should be able to reach a solution. So, you know, didn’t mean it would be easy and it wasn’t easy, but the reality is we kind of knew that we had our boundaries, our guardrails in ways that were consistent with reaching a solution.

Margonelli: And how was it that you were able to build trust and trust each other?

Moniz: Well, first of all, of course we had the fortuitous circumstance that he had gotten his PhD at MIT. He and I were there at the same time. We didn’t know each other in the 1970s, but we were there at the same time, number one. But number two, and really more important is that his PhD supervisor Mike Driscoll was a very good friend of mine. I had recruited him to a major study that we had done: the future of the nuclear fuel cycle. And my co-chair for that study was another very good friend of Salehi because he himself came from the Middle East, a professor of nuclear engineering as well. And so we had common friends, and Ali was extremely enthusiastic about those two individuals in particular.

But then in addition, very early in our meetings, he had his first grandchild come into the world. I already had two grandchildren. That was another shared experience. And I was able to—I must say, at my wife’s suggestion—take some baby gifts from the MIT bookstore for Ali, for his granddaughter. And one of them was pure absolute pinnacle of MIT nerd-like behavior: a pink onesie for his granddaughter, which had two chemical elements, one on each shoulder. One was copper, which you probably know is Cu, and tellurium, Te, “CuTe.” So, you know, with two MIT nerds, this was a strong bonding experience.

Margonelli: Well, that’s really interesting because this bonding experience has spread all over, over the last 30 years, has been a huge part of the US scientific enterprise as there has been more and more scientific collaboration on a one-on-one level between US scientists and Chinese scientists and scientists all over the world. And we also have grad students coming and studying in the United States. So that has kind of been writ very large all across the scientific enterprise. But over the last couple of years, that has started to change. And do you feel that the era of that scientific collaboration is coming to an end?

Moniz: Actually, I don’t. Of course, the great success in the past, I would argue, was the scientific exchange with the Soviet Union and then Russia, and of course, those scientific bonds at the university-to-university level, the academy-to-academy level, also to the national laboratory-to-laboratory level. All of those had built up a very, very strong network of scientists who were accustomed to working with each other, who had great trust in each other, even if their governments did not. And of course, when the Soviet Union basically fell apart and then Russia’s economy fell apart, there was great danger, particularly from the issue of loose nuclear materials, loose nuclear weapons, and loose other weapons of mass destruction. Those scientific relationships were absolutely critical in getting the United States establishment to move much more quickly than ever would’ve been possible.

Frankly, we had scientific national laboratory boots on the ground in Russia well before the niceties that would’ve been required for a government exchange could happen. And so that was very important. Now, today, I do believe that kind of relationship-building will continue to be important. We all understand that it’s got its ups and downs, and today with China especially, there are some downs, but I still have confidence that this will prove to be important. The reality is, before the tensions between the governments got to a relatively low point, the reality is we had decades of very strong interaction. There are many Chinese former graduate students, postdocs, who are in the United States or back in China, maintaining strong scientific connections today.

It is true that a number of scientists are being extremely careful and more reticent than they, in my view, need to be, with regard to exchanges. But it’s fundamentally still there. So I think it will continue. Now, I do think, in many ways, a larger danger for us is the reaction frankly, of the United States government in terms of taking steps with regard to scientists, Chinese-born scientists especially, but not only, which is dampening some of those exchanges. Not eliminating, but certainly dampening them. And I think frankly, the United States government has lost the confidence in the fact, and I say fact, that our system in, certainly, fundamental research remains the best in the world. It remains a core strength for all that we do. And this is all work that’s going to be published. And some of the hysteria that is being practiced is extremely unwise and counterproductive.

Margonelli: Do you see that scientists are receiving signals that they are interpreting as meaning that they need to sort of distance from collaborative research? Or do you see that the signals are coming and the scientists are continuing to collaborate?

Moniz: No, I would say, realistically, it’s certainly the former. Those signals are being received. They are generating responses. Many of the responses are not in our best long-term interest in my view, but there are clearly impacts. On the other hand, again, I still believe that the fundamentals are there, exchanges will continue. And I think that what we need is much more clarity.

For example, fundamental research that’s going to be published, the most that one can accomplish by putting various restrictions in place is some time delay in the information being transmitted. That is certainly not worth distorting the system that has led to the prosperity, the security, etc., that we have enjoyed, which has stemmed from this. Now, on the other hand, when there are legitimate reasons to protect information there, I would urge a return to the Reagan administration.

The Reagan administration had it right. Basically, information is either classified or it’s not. Today, we have allowed a disease to develop in which frankly, pretty unaccountable people start labeling things unclassified, but sensitive. Well, what does that mean? It’s ambiguity. It’s one of those signals where people have a hard time knowing what to do. And so the Reagan administration said, “Look, if the government wants to control certain information, you need to decide that upfront. And it’s black or white, it’s not your favorite shade of gray.” And now we understand that there are always interpretations needed in specific circumstances, but when one starts from that position, there’s a lot more clarity, a lot more understanding about what the bench scientist can or cannot do, should be doing. And again, if it’s unclassified work that’s going to be published, we are just cutting off our nose to spite our face if we start putting restrictions on that work. It’s up to us to stay ahead, to compete, to continue to be creative, innovative, and frankly, we’ll be fine.

Margonelli: OK. I wanted to ask you kind of a meta question here about research openness. You just mentioned NSDD-189, which has a lot of clarity between what is classified and what is not classified, and it meant that essentially most research in the United States was very open, and we’re very committed to openness. And I think scientists as individuals may not understand what they’re building. Each person is doing collaborations, they’re doing open research, but the whole overall sort of edifice—I think of it kind of like termites. Termites build big mounds out of little mouthfuls of dirt that they stack up, and then they don’t understand that they’re building the mound. And I wonder if you could talk about the larger sort of edifice and the benefits of this open research environment in terms of innovation, in terms of ability to influence things that we’re not really even thinking about.

Moniz: Well, the core issue is that science has always been and remains cumulative. That includes the brilliant strokes of genius that people ascribe to individuals. It didn’t come because they were born with insight into all the data in the world. It came because they were working in the field of science and they were talking with scientists. They were reading about science, and they were brilliantly being able to connect dots and build the next, to use your metaphor, the next stage of that mound up to some peaks, which are major steps forward.

But if we start interfering with the foundations of that cumulative impact, we will never know which of those peaks we will never get to, because that’s the way science works, and it’s up to us to capture those results in the most effective way when it comes to translation.

Now, some of that translation will occur, for example, in the private sector. It will occur within various business models that do call for at least some period of confidentiality of various types. But even there, we should understand that things like IP protection are important, you know, patents and the like, they’re important. But the idea that those are the only ways of advancing in that kind of environment is incorrect. We know that there are ways of doing work which are not written down, which are part of the tradition, if you like. Part of the secret is in terms of how one manufactures issues. We should be focusing on the on the things that really matter.

One of the things that really matters, frankly, is maintaining a sensible manufacturing environment. Manufacturing environments are huge drivers of proprietary knowledge, not necessarily in the sense of a patent. It might be and might not be, but they have very important feedbacks. For example, you probably know the well-known book of, I don’t know, 25 years ago or something, Pasteur’s Quadrant, where Don Stokes was the author from Princeton pointing out that a lot of very important scientific advances came from practical problems. Pasteur, in the sense of pasteurization, for example,  leading to tremendous scientific advance. Well, in the same general sense, when we come to diffusion of technologies, beginning to establish market shares, etc., there is tremendous feedback to what you would call research and development because the problems become defined. So we have to get out of the silo that research development, demonstration, deployment are kind of a linear pathway as opposed to having all kinds of feedback loops. That’s where we benefit. Well, if we take out one of the major sources of feedback—like for example, a manufacturing environment—that’s not only bad for jobs and everything else; it’s bad for the innovation system.

So that’s not a call for having every supply chain become domestic, because we tend to oscillate from one pole to the other. Going back to the earlier discussion about China, we see some of that today—an overreaction in a certain sense to some of the supply chain issues.

But on the other hand, we need to also value things like the role of manufacturing in innovation and that supply chain design, just to focus on that issue. It should not be a question of the most narrow definition of economic efficiency because it’s very easy to optimize locally and have nonsense globally. In other words, in terms of where we are going with the innovation system, for example, where we are going in terms of good hygiene of supply chains, in terms of disruptions today—everybody thinks about disruptions as being geopolitical.

Well, they can be, but I don’t think COVID-19 was a geopolitical supply chain disruption. It was a pandemic. Natural events like extreme weather can interrupt supply chains. So what we need, all I’m saying in the end is—and this is kind of an analogy to the original question you raised—is we need to think more broadly in terms of what provides value in the long term. Value scientifically, value economically, value in terms of security, value in terms of environmental stewardship, etc. And that’s in everybody’s best interest. I would argue, particularly if I go to one of my focus areas around clean energy and climate, that in the end thinking about supply chains in this very broad sense from the early stages of research to diffusion and widespread deployment, that we’re all better off with good hygiene. And that will include not just the United States and Europe and Japan, but China as well. And it will, I think, provide a much sounder basis for positive relationships in terms of advancing the public good in many places around the world.

Margonelli: So I think that what you’re saying, if I’m understanding it correctly, is that we have the ability to choose where we collaborate, where we maybe withdraw from some collaboration and where we compete strongly. And we have the choice to decide also where we are exceptionally competitive or leaders on the sort of global stage in these ways.

Moniz: Correct. And also, I would add to that, especially as we look at public-private partnership, for example, in having supply chain hygiene, we need to be careful. I mean, we cannot or should not have that public engagement in every supply chain we can think of. It should be in those that have strong national interest. And so those are the areas where I think governments legitimately have to help shape the environment from early research to manufacturing to feedback loops in terms of learning by doing and all of that kind of thing, whereas that kind of public engagement is not appropriate in every situation.

Margonelli: Thank you very much. I’ve really appreciated getting the chance to talk to you and thank you for joining us.

The question of how best to do scientific collaboration during contentious times is an important one. Issues has published a series of articles on this topic from different points of view. Check the show notes for a list of these articles and the letters of response written by people in the science policy community.

To join the conversation, please send us your thoughts about balancing research security and collaboration. Email us [email protected] and to hear more about this issue and others. Subscribe to The Ongoing Transformation wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks to our podcast producer, Kimberly Quach, and audio engineer Shannon Lynch. I’m Lisa Margonelli, editor-in-chief of Issues in Science and Technology. Thank you for joining us for this season. We’ll be back in early fall. And in the meantime, send us your suggestions for future episodes and visit issues.org to find more conversations like this one.

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Cite this Article

“Episode 34: Secretary Ernest Moniz on the Diplomatic Role of ‘Cumulative’ Science,” Issues in Science and Technology (August 1, 2022).