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December 1999

Test Ban Tumult worth the Effort

 David Applegate

In the October debate over ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, senators raised two technical issues as obstacles for passage. Science could address both. The first was verification: the ability to detect clandestine nuclear tests anywhere on the planet using seismographic networks and geophysical methods. The second is whether the United States can, without testing, maintain the reliability of its stockpile of nuclear weapons. Here was a clear-cut case where the scientific community could provide valuable input into a policy debate.

And it did. One week after Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) announced that the Senate would vote on whether to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), the American Geophysical Union (AGU) and Seismological Society of America (SSA) held an Oct. 6 Washington press conference to release a joint statement on the United States’ ability to monitor compliance with the test ban. The statement expressed confidence that the treaty’s verification goals can be met once the monitoring systems called for in the treaty are fully deployed. The statement also calls for making data from such systems “openly available without any restriction or delay.”

The press conference drew camera crews from CNN and the Fox News Channel along with reporters from The New York Times and other media. Even before they released the statement, the authors visited staff of key senators, including Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms (R-N.C.). AGU staff delivered copies to each senator’s office and made follow-up calls to answer questions.

On the reliability of the nation’s stockpile of nuclear weapons, the American Physical Society (APS) had issued a position statement in 1997 asserting that testing was not necessary for maintaining this reliability and supporting the treaty. Shortly after Lott’s Sept. 30 announcement of a vote, APS released a letter signed by 32 Nobel Prize-winning physicists re-affirming the APS statement and calling for ratification. On the afternoon of the joint AGU/SSA news conference, several Nobelists joined President Clinton for a Rose Garden ceremony to drum up support for the treaty. Scientists stepped up to the plate to play a crucial role in a major policy issue.

Just one hitch: The following week, the Senate failed to ratify the treaty by a 51–48 vote, 16 votes shy of the required two-thirds majority. It was the first Senate defeat of a major treaty since the 1920 rejection of the Treaty of Versailles and with it President Woodrow Wilson’s dream of a League of Nations. Democrats unsuccessfully sought to delay the vote, an effort dripping with cruel irony. Since President Clinton signed the CTBT in 1996, Democratic senators had tried repeatedly to dislodge the treaty from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Despite polls showing 80 percent support for CTBT ratification, Chairman Helms was adamant that he would not consider the treaty until after votes on the Kyoto Protocol (which the president has yet to submit to the Senate for ratification) and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. In that context, Democrats were stunned by Sen. Lott’s announcement that not only would a vote be held, but it would take place in less than two weeks, with only 10 hours allotted for debate and with only a one-day hearing in the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Lessons Learned

The treaty’s defeat left scientists involved in the issue dismayed that partisan politics had rendered their efforts moot. Republicans rushed to hand President Clinton a major foreign policy defeat, and the president’s wan lobbying effort before the vote contrasted with his zeal afterwards to make political hay out of the Senate’s irresponsibility. This defeat is in part a reminder that scientific issues compose only one element in the complex calculus of a political decision. But what else can scientists learn from this experience? In particular, what lessons can societies contemplating position statements learn from the AGU/SSA experience?

Stick with science, stay out of politics:

The AGU/SSA statement made a technical case for treaty verifiability without taking the additional step of endorsing the treaty. Because it avoided making a political judgment outside of any scientific expertise, the statement had greater credibility with Senate Republicans. Even though they voted against the treaty, those senators retain a strong interest in U.S. technologies for monitoring other nations’ nuclear tests. Senators on both sides of the ratification debate can use the statement for justifying development of additional detection capabilities. If those capabilities are developed consistently with the statement’s call for open data availability, monitoring efforts and fundamental scientific knowledge will both benefit. The statement also deserves credit for avoiding the appearance of being self serving. It does not call for more research funding, which would detract from its central message.

Timing determines relevance:

The timing of the release of the AGU/SSA statement was partly fortuitous—but not entirely. As the saying goes, we make our own luck. More than a year ago, Greg van der Vink of the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology initiated the statement within both societies. Having been involved with monitoring for many years, van der Vink recognized that the science had progressed to the point that the seismological community could offer a meaningful consensus and that a pressure point for the treaty was inevitable sooner rather than later. To universalize: many policy issues are cyclic. Scientists can bolster their relevance by anticipating the next cycle and being prepared when an issue pops up on political radar screens (see “Political Scene,” Geotimes, July 1998).

Civic duty needs exercise:

In speeches to scientists, policy-makers invariably emphasize that the scientific community must foster a greater sense of each scientist’s responsibility as a citizen-scientist. By that same token, when public policy issues have technical components, scientific societies must find the level of consensus among their membership and communicate that consensus (however limited) to policy-makers. Developing position statements engages scientists in the policy-making process, allowing them to gain an entirely different perspective than they would from the sidelines. Only through repeated efforts can scientists become more savvy in dealing with policy-makers and thus more effective for future debates. Also, position statements accompanied by supporting documents provide a society’s members the tools to communicate, as active constituents, with their elected representatives on specific issues.

The Senate’s brief consideration of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty limited the immediate power of the AGU/SSA statement. The vote’s rapidity was unprecedented, as was the call for a straight up-or-down vote. Most treaties pass the Senate only after extensive debate and the inclusion of a number of safeguards or caveats on precisely the sort of technical issues that scientific statements can address.

Nonetheless, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty is too important an issue to lie dormant for long and may well re-emerge during the presidential campaign. When the treaty resurfaces, the American Geophysical Union and the Seismological Society of America will be prepared with their statement, should the Senate find itself in a more deliberative mood. After all, such statements are only the starting point of a larger strategy to inform policy debates. The hard work is always yet to come.

David Applegate
AGI Director of Government Affairs.
E-mail: <>
The AGU/SSA statement on the CTBT is available at <>.

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