Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
April 17, 2024

How is Hopkins involved in nuclear arms research?

By LAURA WADSTEN | November 21, 2019

MARYLAND GOVPICS/CC BY 2.0 The Hopkins Applied Physics Lab is located far from the Homewood Campus, in Laurel, Md.

The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) released a report earlier this month titled “Schools of Mass Destruction: American Universities in the U.S. Nuclear Weapons Complex.” The report identifies Hopkins as one of the universities involved in the development and maintenance of nuclear weapons in the U.S. 

ICAN is a consortium of non-governmental organizations across the globe that seek to ban the existence of nuclear weapons. The coalition was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017 for its work in promoting the United Nations nuclear weapons ban treaty.

The main channel for the University’s involvement in defense research is the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), which holds contracts with many U.S. government agencies, including the Department of Defense (DOD) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Should the Hopkins APL continue nuclear weapons research?

Nuclear weapons experts and students alike disagreed over the role that universities like Hopkins should play in developing weapons of mass destruction. 

In an interview with The News-Letter, senior Evan Drukker-Schardl expressed his belief that Hopkins should not be involved in nuclear weapons research. 

He argued that involvement in nuclear weapons projects was not true to the personal ethics of Johns Hopkins himself. 

“I agree with the ICAN report that developing and researching nuclear weapons is contrary to the University’s mission. Johns Hopkins was a Quaker, a pacifist, and he founded the University as a place of academic research, of science and knowledge to benefit humanity,” he said. “Nuclear weapons are exactly the opposite of that.”

Alicia Sanders-Zakre, a contributor to the ICAN report, emphasized that nuclear weapons research does not align with the goals of institutions like Hopkins. 

“A lot of [university] mission statements call on schools to help educate students to make the world a better place, and it’s not much of a stretch to say that working on nuclear weapons doesn’t make the world a better place,” she said.

The University received $828 million in research grants from the DOD in 2017. This funding is linked to the University’s science and engineering research, with no specific breakdown by project or sector. That figure is more than twice as much as any other American university. 

The ICAN report cites a single contract, the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center’s strategic partnership, that directly ties the APL to nuclear weapons research, worth $93 million.

Junior Jeremy Berger believes that the University should be more selective when considering which entities it decides to contract with. 

“It’s really important to examine the morality of the contracts that our University has, be it with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, fossil fuel companies, PepsiCo or the Department of Defense,” Berger said. “These weapons are primarily being used to oppress poor nations and hurt innocent people, and it’s disgusting that Hopkins is using its research capabilities for such harm, when it could be doing so much good with research.”

Other students said that they were not concerned by the University’s involvement in nuclear weapons research.

Sophomore Duncan Parke argued that because disarmament is not possible at the current moment, he has no issue with the APL’s work on these weapons. 

“Currently, we have to maintain our arsenal because, at this exact time, there’s no way to denuclearize outside of attempted diplomatic means, which have failed recently. Mutually assured destruction is what we have to go with right now,” Parke said.

Freshman Julia An echoed Parke’s sentiments. 

While An agreed with Sanders-Zakre that denuclearization could be a good end to pursue, she pointed out that the current state of international relations cannot justify ending defense research efforts.

“Ultimately, perhaps denuclearization is a goal that could increase security in the world, [but] at this point with the international structures that we currently have, it’s very idealistic,” An said. “I don’t have any strong negative emotions about Hopkins being involved in developing nuclear weapons because I don’t think there’s any current international structure that could facilitate denuclearization in a stable way that doesn’t increase instability and potential for conflict.”

Francis Gavin, the Giovanni Agnelli distinguished professor and director of the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, defined what he sees to be the larger question at hand — whether research universities should be involved in developing technologies related to national security policy. 

Gavin explained that American universities like Hopkins played a crucial role in winning World War II, and in helping the U.S. to succeed during the Cold War. 

“Would [students] have preferred that Hopkins and MIT and other universities sit out World War II? Would they have preferred they sit out the Cold War? You can make that case; I wouldn’t have,” Gavin said.

APL External Communications Manager Geoff Brown explained in an email to The News-Letter that their work is focused on addressing national security challenges.

“The Laboratory’s scientists, engineers and analysts serve as trusted advisors and technical experts to the government, ensuring the reliability of complex technologies that safeguard America’s security and advance the frontiers of space,” Brown wrote.

Gavin emphasized how research funded by the DOD has also led to valuable developments in fields not related to weapons. He believes that this work cannot be considered separately from that on nuclear weapons.

“The development of things like radar, sonar, supersonic capabilities and stealth capabilities — they all had to do with war,” he said. “If you have a problem with that, you have to have a problem with all of that. I don’t see how you could separate nuclear weapons from everything from the internet to radar to computing capabilities.”

Gavin stressed that much of the work being done in this field is not developing more powerful weapons. 

“Most other technological advances at universities working on nuclear weapons have to do with the ability to detect them, to miniaturize them and to work on things like how to deliver them more accurately with stealth,” he said. 

When asked how members of the Hopkins community should respond to the findings of the report, Sanders-Zakre argued that students should advocate for change if they have issues with the University’s involvement in weapons development. 

“The Applied Physics Laboratory has a contract continuing the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center’s Strategic Partnership that was renewed in 2017. If students are concerned about that partnership, they should be speaking out, and telling Johns Hopkins to stop working on developing and maintaining weapons of mass murder,” Sanders-Zakre said. 

The Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) is known as a University Affiliated Research Center (UARC). UARCs are nonprofit centers that are sponsored and funded primarily by the DOD and affiliated with their home university. They exist at more than 15 universities across the country. 

Parke questioned the influence that undergraduates should yield in affairs conducted by University affiliates at other locations. 

“A lot of the research and development is done at the APL, which is not strictly Homewood campus. As undergraduate students, I’m not sure how much of a say we really should have,” Parke said. 

Is the ICAN report fair and comprehensive?

Gavin added that the report seemed to fail to take into account the significant decrease in the number of nuclear weapons in the world that has occurred over the past few decades. 

“Just looking at the report, for example, one thing it says is that there are 14,000 nuclear weapons in the world today. Well, several decades ago there were 70,000 nuclear weapons in the world… What I think we forget is that we’ve been living with bombs — you can’t magically make [them] go away,“ he said. “Yet we’ve actually done an extraordinary amount through nuclear non-proliferation treaties, arms control treaties to decrease the role nuclear weapons play in international politics, to limit the spread of nuclear weapons and to decrease dangers of their use.”

Sanders-Zakre explained how the data for the report was collected, and emphasized that universities were contacted to allow them to offer edits on the section regarding their individual schools. 

She told The News-Letter that, because universities did not take any proactive action to submit revisions, she believes that her research was accurate.

“ We... provided every university a chance to review and submit any edits they would like to the sections on their university in the report we published, and most didn’t request any major changes, which I think indicates the quality of the research,” Sanders-Zakre said. 

While Gavin argued that it is good for people to engage in conversation over the role of nuclear weapons at American universities, he was critical of the ICAN report. He expressed concern that it did not seem to address multiple sides of the issue.

“It’s a healthy debate, and it’s an important debate, so it’s good that people assess disarmament versus deterrence,” Gavin said. “That being said, I am not so sure that this report is particularly helpful, in that it seems to be one-sided and it also seems to be more oriented towards simple advocacy rather than thoughtful debate and discussion.”

Should defense research be classified?

The report also criticized the University’s exemption of APL research from its policy on classified research, which is generally not allowed. 

The report argues that policies of classification prevent transparency and do not align with the University’s mission statement. Sanders-Zakre explained why she sees the classified nature of research at the APL as a problem. 

“Hopkins for the most part prohibits classified research, as it can inhibit academic integrity,” Sanders-Zakre said. “It allows classified research just at the APL. So there are still a lot of unanswered questions about what exactly the APL is doing, and if there are more links, that we don’t even know about, to the nuclear weapons complex.” 

She recommended that students push the University to stop allowing classified research to be done at the APL. 

Senior Evan Drukker-Schardl agreed with Sanders-Zakre, citing the difficulties he encountered when trying to conduct research related to military affairs. 

“This is a problem for anyone studying the U.S. military and the military industrial complex and how it relates to academia. I’m writing my thesis on the War on Terror and so I have encountered these problems,” Drukker-Schardl said. “Lots of documents are classified. The public… should be aware of what, for instance, their donor money is going to or what their own research and their own participation in the University is going towards.” 

Freshman Julia An explained that while she understood why work related to national security is often classified, she hopes the University will make non-classified information more widely available. 

Gavin explained that he supports classification of details of nuclear weapons development, so that information does not fall into the wrong hands. He did note, however, that there are issues with the current classification system, and that the presence of classified work on University campuses is a debate that students should have. 

“I think a lot of people would say that we need reform, and there’s too much classification and they haven’t necessarily done the best job possible of protecting intellectual property, national security, and the like... Universities should be places of open discussion about whether you want to have classified work,” Gavin said. 

What moral responsibility do researchers bear?

Nearly all parties interviewed agreed that scientists should consider the ethical implications of the work they engage in. 

Sanders-Zakre explained how some scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project, which developed the first nuclear weapons during World War II, spoke out in opposition once they realized the applications of their work. She also emphasized that scientists should take ownership of their labor.

“Some scientists are working on basic research that has multiple applications, but is funded by the government specifically because it has applications for nuclear weapons work. I think that it’s critical that scientists take control over the implications of their work,” Sanders-Zakre said.

Parke explained how research funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which is often the source of grants to the APL, is frequently applied in contexts beyond what is initially stated. He detailed his own experience working under a DARPA grant on computer vision technologies, and how beneficial civilian applications arise from work intended for national defense. 

Because of this, Parke argued, scientists should only be considered accountable for developments to which they knowingly contribute. 

“In my personal experience working with computer vision technologies, which can be used in drone work, those same technologies can be used in drone mapping for updated maps for things like Google Maps, or ocean acidification tracking, like looking for algae blooms,” Parke said. “Because the research that’s being done can be used in so many different ways, you can’t necessarily hold the eventual development that comes from the research to the individual, unless that individual specifically has known what their research is going to.”

An agreed that it can be hard to peg responsibility on scientists, especially since so much knowledge that is not specifically related to nuclear weapons goes into their development. 

“If you hold people responsible for simply doing research that eventually somehow contributes to a destructive weapon that takes the lives of a lot of people, a lot of people would be held responsible because we don’t even know to what extent the information developers use [goes back],” An said. 

Senior Evan Drukker-Schardl explained that scientists have a responsibility to minimize the negative consequences of their work. 

He added that, in his opinion, researchers working on nuclear weapons advancements are conducting unethical research.

“I’m not necessarily an expert in nuclear physics so I can’t really say what the boundaries of what’s acceptable and what isn’t are. What is clear is that if you’re a scientist and you know that your work is contributing to the development of weapons of mass destruction, that is unethical,” he said. “It’s important for scientists and researchers to minimize the harm that they do in whatever ways they can while also producing important knowledge.”

Gavin expressed his belief that scientists are spending more time considering the ethics of their decisions in modern times, underscoring the importance of this change.

“Scientists do need to be aware of and reflect upon the ethical dimensions of their work… Whether it involves genomes, cloning, AI or nukes, these are important conversations and my sense is that scientists and the engineering community in the last decade or so have become more aware of and sensitive to that,” Gavin said.

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