In May 2022, I was privileged to attend the CSIS PONI Capstone Conference at U.S. Strategic Command in Omaha, Nebraska with the UK PONI delegation.
Participants at the conference included government officials, industry professionals, academics, and researchers from a number of NGOs, all examining nuclear weapons issues from a vast range of perspectives. Whilst the content of the conference was interesting and certainly educational (we learned, for example, how cryptographic data exchange could support warhead verification), the greatest value came from the opportunity to engage in interdisciplinary debate. With that in mind, I offer three key reflections on the importance of interdisciplinary debate facilitated by conferences like the PONI Capstone Conference.
1. Encourage Critical Thinking
There is immense value in checking and challenging your ideas and assumptions with those who think differently to you. When you bring people together from a variety of backgrounds, they are bound to disagree, but presenting one’s ideas to a wider audience also challenges any possible disciplinary groupthink and opens the possibility for questions related to one’s research that were previously not considered.
As both an academic and a policy person, I was afforded the opportunity to learn about the practical and political challenges others saw regarding the implementation of more normative, academic ideas such as empathy and responsibility, into practice. Rather than feeling deflated because not everyone might buy into my ideas, I left these types of engagements grateful for the opportunity to test current ideas and inspired to pursue further interdisciplinary collaboration.
2. Facilitate cognitive empathy between different perspectives
Beyond encouraging critical thinking, the Capstone Conference provided an opportunity to better understand what other professionals in this field do. Prior to the conference, I had no idea what a weapons systems engineer from Babcock does, nor what life on a nuclear submarine is really like. In the context of my research, given my social constructivist social science background, these conferences help facilitate cognitive empathy; the process of having a greater and more accurate understanding of what another person thinks or feels without necessarily agreeing with them. Cognitive empathy makes us better communicators and raises the chance of creating inclusive and acceptable policy for all. The only real way to develop cognitive empathy is to bring these people with different perspectives together in a room.
Something I observed during the conference, interestingly, is that once we are all in the same room, we tend to assume a common understanding of the various terms we use across disciplines, too often relying on jargon and acronyms. Anecdotal evidence of this was apparent throughout the conference; in one instance, a member of the nuclear engineering community and I took turns asking what simple acronyms meant, like the NPT (the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons). While doing so, we realized that such field-specific language makes interdisciplinary debates less accessible—something that could again be improved by bringing together different professions and disciplines more often.
3. Understand Where Your Work Fits into the Bigger Picture
I was reminded through the conference to consider the bigger picture, again relating to this idea of being able to engage in effective interdisciplinary communication. The work we focus on as researchers tends to be specialised and niche. Whilst this can be beneficial, it is nonetheless useful to consider where your work fits into the bigger picture, as our individual contributions are necessary but wholly insufficient if not performed as a piece of a broader puzzle. The Capstone Conference served as a reminder that the work we all do is not in competition with one another, despite the different approaches we take. The challenges posed by nuclear weapons transcend any singular discipline, and creative solutions towards our shared goal of a safer and more secure world are likely to result from greater collaboration, or at least dialogue, between those with different backgrounds and security approaches.
I am incredibly grateful to both UK PONI and CSIS PONI for their commitment to providing opportunities for the development of early to mid-career professionals to engage in such diverse and rich debates.
Alice Spilman is a PhD Researcher at the University of Birmingham and a Policy Fellow at BASIC.
Image: The UK PONI delegation at the 2022 PONI Capstone Conference. Taken by Dr Ana Alecsandru in May 2022.