UCS Founder Kurt Gottfried Wins AAAS Award

, physicist & co-director, Global Security | February 14, 2017, 8:19 am EST
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Kurt Gottfried, a founder of UCS in 1969 and a guiding spirit and intellect since then, has won the prestigious 2017 Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award given by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). AAAS is the world’s largest general scientific society and publisher of the journal Science.

I can’t think of anyone more deserving of this award, which recognizes Kurt’s lifetime of dedication and achievements. AAAS said it is to recognize Kurt’s “long and distinguished career as a ‘civic scientist,’ through his advocacy for arms control, human rights, and integrity in the use of science in public policy making.”

Source: UCS

Kurt receiving this award also means a lot to me personally, since he has been one of the biggest influences on my professional life. I first met him in 1978 when I took his quantum mechanics course as a physics grad student at Cornell. He was a wonderful teacher and communicator, and generations of students have learned the subject from his classic text book (now in its second edition).

But I actually got to know him a couple years later—early in the Reagan presidency—when we were part of a group at Cornell that brought high-level speakers to campus to talk about the nuclear arms race, which was heating up. I’ve been privileged to have continued to work with him since that time. Kurt’s way of thinking about the world and approaching the problems he worked on have helped shaped my own.

Kurt’s history

I would guess that even the people who know him may not be aware of the range of activities Kurt has taken on over the years.

Kurt was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1929. He has had a long and distinguished career as a theoretical physicist. He received his PhD from MIT, became a Junior Fellow at Harvard, and has been a physics professor (now emeritus) at Cornell since 1964.

At the same time, he has dedicated boundless energy to improving the world, in areas including international security and nuclear arms control, human rights, and preventing political intervention in scientific input in policymaking. For example:

Science, International Security, and Arms Control

On leave at MIT in 1968-9, Kurt helped draft a statement encouraging scientists to consider society’s use of technical knowledge, and calling on scientists and engineers across the country to join a national effort to discuss these issues in university classes on March 4, 1969.

Following the success of that effort, Kurt co-founded UCS that same year. His goal was to help scientists bring their expertise to bear on public policy issues that had an important technical component. From the beginning, the vision was to build a research and advocacy organization that combined technical experts with experts in policy analysis, media engagement, and outreach and education for the public and policy makers, while keeping issues of science and technology at the core of its work.

Today, UCS has grown to more than 180 staff members and has an annual budget of more than $27 million. More than 45 years after UCS’ founding, Kurt remains a valuable member of the Board of Directors.

Over the years, UCS not only helped inform debates and shape policy on a wide range of issues, it also helped legitimize the active role of scientists in these debates and created staff positions allowing scientists to work on these issues full time. And it helped engage a broad set of scientists in part-time policy work, educating them about the issues and training them in writing and speaking for policy makers.

Working with UCS, Kurt was among the first people to raise concerns about the development of missile defenses, co-authoring a report on the topic in 1969. Kurt and UCS were particularly active in the debate in the 1980s and 1990s following President Reagan’s “Star Wars” speech. Kurt weighed in with articles and op-eds in Scientific American, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and elsewhere, and co-authored the influential books The Fallacy of Star Wars (1984) and Countermeasures: A Technical Evaluation of the Planned U.S. National Missile Defense System (2000).

Kurt at a 2000 press conference in Washington. Source: UCS

Kurt also worked to prevent the development of anti-satellite weapons and weapons based in space. He wrote and spoke widely about this issue and worked with Dick Garwin to develop a draft treaty banning anti-satellite weapons, which he presented to the Senate and House Foreign Relations Committees in 1983 and 1984.

In addition, he authored or co-authored articles on nuclear weapons, command and control systems and crisis stability, and cooperative security in Nature, the New York Review of Books, and elsewhere. He edited two books on these issues—Crisis Stability and Nuclear War (1988), and Reforging European Security: From Confrontation to Cooperation (1990)—and contributed chapters to several others.

Scientists and Human Rights

Kurt was also very active in human rights issues for many years—activities he undertook outside his work with UCS. During the 1980s he traveled to the Soviet Union to meet with and support refuseniks, and he urged others in the scientific community to actively support these dissidents.

Kurt was a major figure in the American Physical Society (APS) Committee on International Freedom of Scientists (CIFS), which helped oppressed scientists in the Soviet Union and other countries. CIFS described its goal as:

The Committee was formed to deal with those matters of an international nature that endanger the abilities of scientists to function as scientists. The Committee is to be particularly concerned with acts of governments or organizations, which through violation of generally recognized human rights, restrict or destroy the ability of scientists to function as such.

Kurt served as CIFS’ first chair in 1980 and 1981. One of CIFS’ innovations was its use of “small committees,” typically consisting of three or four people, who would pick a persecuted scientist and regularly write to the scientist and his/her family, friends, and local officials.

Even when these letters were intercepted by the authorities, they raised the profile of the scientist and made clear that international attention was focused on this person. By 1983, these committees were writing to 63 scientists, and the number continued to increase through the mid-1980s.

Kurt also helped found the organization Scientists for Sakharov, Orlov, and Sharansky (SOS) to focus attention on three of the most prominent Soviet refuseniks. He served on the SOS Executive Committee from 1978-90. SOS’s call for a moratorium on scientific cooperation with the Soviet Union to highlight concern about the treatment of scientists was joined by nearly 8,000 scientists and engineers from 44 countries, and gained international attention.

Soviet physicist Yuri Orlov was jailed for a decade in the Soviet Union after forming Moscow Helsinki Watch to monitor Soviet actions on human rights after it signed the Helsinki Accords in 1975. Kurt’s involvement in his case led to Orlov coming to Cornell after his release in 1986 and joining the physics faculty.

Kurt was also instrumental in winning the release in 1978 of the physicist Elena Sevilla, who was imprisoned in Argentina because of political activities by her husband, a newspaper reporter. On her release, Kurt arranged for her to come to Cornell to finish her graduate studies in physics.

Kurt’s work not only helped the refuseniks and other oppressed scientists. His actions over the years have helped inspire others in the scientific community to recognize and act on their ability and responsibility to help scientists who were denied basic human rights.

For his work on these issues, Kurt was awarded the APS Leo Szilard Award in 1992.

Scientific Integrity/Science and Democracy

In the wake of growing evidence that some officials in the George W. Bush Administration were distorting scientific knowledge and the scientific advisory process to an unprecedented degree, Kurt recruited 62 preeminent scientists to sign a statement titled Restoring Scientific Integrity in Policy Making, which was released in February 2004.

The statement charged the Bush Administration with widespread “manipulation of the process through which science enters into its decisions” and called out the administration’s misrepresentation of scientific evidence, appointment of unqualified members of scientific advisory committees, and silencing of federal government scientists—actions that threatened the integrity of science in policy making.

The statement drew wide public attention to these issues. It was signed on-line by more than 12,000 scientists.

Subsequently, Kurt led the effort to create a new program at UCS to work on this issue, which researched examples of abuse, engaged the scientific community on this issue, and worked with administration agencies to reform their practices, including writing draft rules on scientific integrity for these agencies. Kurt was also the force behind evolving that program into the UCS Center for Science and Democracy in 2012, arguing there was a need to address a broader set of issues related to the role of science and evidence-based analysis in democratic society.

* * *

Kurt, Hans Bethe, Dick Garwin, and Henry Kendall at a press conference on missile defense, March 22, 1984 (Source: James J. MacKenzie)

For half a century, Kurt has engaged the scientific community, policy makers, and the general public on important issues related to international security, human rights, and the role of science in democratic society. Moreover, he has encouraged his colleagues to become involved, mentored younger scientists in these issues, and created an organization that has magnified his efforts and will continue this work well beyond his lifetime.

Kurt has been an inspiration to me and other scientists who decided to make a career of applying our technical backgrounds to important policy issues, and helped break the ground to make a career of this kind more possible.

Kurt receiving the award on Feb. 17 from AAAS CEO Rush Holt and AAAS President Barbara Schaal. (Source: UCS)

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