Atomic Pulse

NTI at 20: Ernie Moniz on Choosing NTI, Connecting the Dots, and Envisioning a World at Peace

Ernest J. Moniz came to NTI in 2017 following his service as the nation’s thirteenth Secretary of Energy. During his tenure at the Department of Energy (DOE), Moniz advanced energy technology innovation, nuclear security and strategic stability, cutting-edge capabilities for the American scientific research community, and environmental stewardship. At the same time, he strengthened DOE’s strategic partnership with its national laboratories and with the Department of Defense and the broader national security establishment. Moniz’s work at DOE, and his entire career stretching from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to the Iran nuclear agreement negotiating table, made him uniquely suited to succeed Sam Nunn as CEO of NTI.

Over the course of this year, as NTI marks its 20th anniversary, our experts will share some reflections on two decades of working to build a safer world—accomplishments and challenges, lessons learned along the way, visions for the future. Today, we hear from Moniz—a physicist, a diplomat, an environmentalist, and, by his own account, a modestly accomplished but very enthusiastic fly-fisherman.

After serving as Secretary of Energy, you could have brought your extraordinary expertise and experience on global security to bear in any number of ways. Why NTI?

It was a combination of factors. NTI has a unique track record of success with an agenda matched to my interests and yet with space to expand work in emerging areas of great import and urgency, such as rapidly evolving digital technologies and bio threats. Of course, I saw the impact of NTI up close during the two Nuclear Security Summits that I participated in with President Obama, and NTI’s work was very consequential to the summits’ success. We shouldn’t forget how impactful it was to convene about 50 heads of state on the nuclear security mission.

During my tenure as Secretary, but also in my earlier role as DOE Under Secretary in the second term of President Clinton, a large part of my effort was dedicated to eliminating the threat posed by Russian nuclear materials and systems in the first post-Soviet decade—obviously a major part of Sam Nunn’s agenda and NTI’s mission. And of course, I knew the quality of NTI people from my DOE days, founding members like Charlie Curtis and Joan Rohlfing, and then some I was able to hire—people like Corey Hinderstein and Laura Holgate—who I had worked with at DOE in one or another of those two periods.

All those factors converged, and add to that the chance to work closely with Sam Nunn, who left the Senate just as I was about to start my first stint at the DOE. So that was also part of the sine qua non of my joining NTI. I also have to say that it has afforded me the really great pleasure of getting to know Ted Turner. Of course, he’s done so much for NTI and remains passionate about the mission to end nuclear weapons risks, but I’ve also come to appreciate his deeply held values and commitment and actions toward improving life at a global level.

Let me also add Bio to the set of motivations that brought me to NTI. After 9/11, which happened shortly after NTI was established 20 years ago, NTI was instrumental in supporting a major national academy study on bioterrorism. It’s known as the Fink report, named after its chair, Gerry Fink, who also happens to be a great colleague of mine on the MIT faculty.

In early 2017, NTI was moving to significantly build its focus in this area, and I saw a major opportunity and need to emphasize biosecurity in today’s world. Of course, that was a fateful decision for NTI, given the emergence of COVID early in 2020, but we had already had a handful of significant bio events just in this century, which is why the organization was already moving to grow the program.

The bottom line is, there were lots of reasons to respond positively to the suggestion of joining NTI, and I hope I’ve been able to clear the way for NTI’s incredibly talented people to continue to reduce catastrophic risks.

When you signed on, what was your vision for how NTI could continue to make a difference against emerging and evolving threats?

NTI had a well-earned reputation for inventive approaches to threat reduction and systemic change, but a change in leadership is also a time to take stock and think about new directions. When NTI was formed in 2001, 9/11 clearly turned the world’s attention to the risks of terrorism with global reach, and that remains a front-burner concern. But by 2017, when the suggestion of my joining NTI came up, there were many, many significantly changed circumstances, and these would call on NTI’s resourcefulness in new ways.

Of course, there was the Obama-Trump transition, which I was part of, in the sense that I was leaving the government. Even at the transition point, there were lots of indications that there would be fundamental changes to how America addresses its international obligations—and that would affect NTI’s work and call for some new approaches. I don’t think anyone understood at the time just how profound that change would be, but it was clearly in the air.

The Russian relationship was in the tank following the Ukraine incursions of 2014. The U.S.-Russia relationship was always a major focus of NTI’s work, so that called out for new approaches, and I had, as I mentioned, a long history of working with Russia on nuclear issues. At the same time, China was becoming more assertive internationally, while steadfastly staying outside of nuclear arms control discussions, and the Middle East was of increasing proliferation concern with nuclear fuel cycle development at the heart of it, as highlighted by Iran, where again, obviously, I had very substantial experience. The clock speed of technology development keeps increasing, raising issues of cybersecurity, and strategic stability, and the emergence of artificial intelligence and machine learning, for better or worse, in the domain of WMD.

So, I felt that my background at MIT and DOE would allow me to help shape new programs of considerable relevance and do it with the continuity and creativity of partnering with Sam and the NTI leadership team.

I think it’s worked pretty well, as indicated by the sucking sound of the Biden administration, wanting so many of our staff to carry out our mission within government. Of course, that’s the greatest compliment but also a real challenge going forward. But it’s a challenge that, with NTI’s successful model of going from formulation of new approaches to creating systemic change, we’ve met before. That’s the kind of work we are doing, and that’s what we will continue to do, and that’s why I know we will continue to have a significant impact.

What are the greatest opportunities for and obstacles to making progress on global nuclear security?

Well, the greatest obstacle, I think, is the breakdown of dialogue with our adversaries and with our longstanding allies and partners. The greatest opportunity, then, lies with restoring that kind of dialogue, and that starts at home. The extreme political polarization that we see all around us severely limits the political space for dialogue and negotiation. I experienced that directly with the Iran deal and its implementation.

So, we have a lot of work to do, as we’ve always done internationally, but we’ve got a lot of work to do at home to work within this reality of political polarization and to do what we can to turn down the temperature on that, at least in our issue areas.

What about on biosecurity?

When we look at nuclear and bio threat reduction, the approaches are totally different because of the reality that biology touches directly on major economic realities and opportunities and on human health. So, the risks associated with biotechnology will always be placed in that context of the enormous economic and health benefits. This is in contrast to nuclear, which grew out of the Manhattan Project and represents a much smaller fraction of the civilian economy.

I believe that the NTI-led work on trying to establish a global normative entity to help address the potential risks related to biotechnology research could be another example of NTI’s capacity for fostering systemic change. The debate over whether the current COVID pandemic emerged from a wet market or accidentally from the Wuhan lab may never be resolved, but it clearly suggests the potential for the latter, and reinforces the global common interest in widely shared and implemented norms.

So that’s why I think our focus in this area, supplementing the work we do on the Global Health Security Index, is really going to the heart of the problem by highlighting that we are going to need international cooperation at the normative level. And that’s what we are aiming to do.

The pace of scientific and technological advances has exploded in recent years, with important implications for nuclear and biosecurity. This is a major focus for NTI going forward. How can we contribute?

Well, I think what we do especially well is connect the dots between emerging technology and catastrophic risk. I mean, NTI is never going to develop a large science and technology department. That’s not our scale, and that’s not our way of working. What we will do is connect those dots, and there already are three very good examples that we’ve been pursuing, just in the last few years, on cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, and biosecurity.

On cybersecurity and the risks to nuclear weapons command-and-control systems, as well as early-warning systems, what I think we’ve done very well is to put the risks in the context of strategic stability and decision time to launch a nuclear weapon, and we’re very pleased with the attention to the issue and the ideas we’re developing around reducing risks. Related to that, I think NTI really helped advance the Biden administration’s push with Russia to reestablish some dialogue on strategic stability, and cybersecurity has been specifically incorporated within that dialogue.

A second novel area for NTI has been our work, with key partners, to apply machine learning to publicly available data that could lead to identification of proliferation risks. We tend to focus a lot on how emerging technology presents risk, and perhaps less on how it also presents opportunity. This is a very important new area. With the continuing development of big data analytics, machine learning and artificial intelligence, I think we will have been right there at the beginning in terms of applying these tools to our risk-reduction activities.

Third, as we’ve talked about already, addressing the bio risks associated with modern biology was identified as a priority very clearly in 2017 when we started to hire in this area, and we now have a very substantial group working on it. It was really all driven by the fact that we had already been through pandemic in this century, not as bad as COVID-19 in terms of impact, but it’s not often enough stated that COVID-19 is actually the third coronavirus of this century. So, I think, again, we connected the dots very early on in terms of the connection to catastrophic risk. Our Global Health Security Index developed with Johns Hopkins certainly has had a significant impact, and I think our second index, due out in late 2021, will as well. Again, we connected the dots to the need for the international community to substantially up the game, together, in terms of addressing preparation for pandemic risks.

I also would add that members of our fairly recently formed Science and Technology Advisory Committee—an energetic group that includes our Board members Ray Rothrock, Gideon Frank, Lou Salkind, and until she was confirmed to the administration, Jill Hruby—have offered tremendously important contributions to how NTI can help manage risk.

What’s your vision for NTI 20 years from now?

Well, 2041 is getting pretty close to 2045 and 2050.

I single out 2045 because it’s the 100th anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and it is a very appropriate aspiration that we would like to achieve NTI’s ultimate goal of seeing the nuclear weapon risk eliminated on that kind of a timeframe. 2050 is the year where there’s most focus around the world on mitigating climate change by reaching net zero greenhouse gas emissions, at least in the industrialized countries.

So, I’m not going to predict what 2041 looks like, but what I would say is, when you think of the atomic bombings in Japan and the impact of climate change, and the association with that timescale, you can think about two very, very different worlds. One world is that in which we have success in those domains, the domain of nuclear weapons risks, the domain of climate change, and I would add in it the domain of bio-risk. If we have succeeded in all those dimensions, that means we have a world which is in a very, very different security situation than we see today. It is a world with every chance of being at peace.

Perhaps the answer to your question, then, is that in that scenario, NTI will have had a gala in 2041, a final event to celebrate this new world with the kind of peace and security that we are working towards today.

Then there’s the world in which we have failed in one or more, or perhaps all, of those domains. Nuclear weapons risks continue. Climate change is causing enormous international disruption. Similarly, with pandemics. If that’s the world, then I guess NTI will still be there, step-by-step reducing those risks and hoping that the preferred outcome maybe comes 20 years later.

We will never stop working, step-by-step, systematically, reducing the risks, bringing about systemic change, and hopefully succeeding so that we realize our vision on nuclear risks, bio-risks, and climate risks.

Have you had a chance to do any fly fishing this year?

Yes, in fact, Sam Nunn and I and our wives had the chance to visit NTI founder Ted Turner at his ranch in Montana, or one of his ranches, more precisely. Ted is a global leader in conservation, and he has done a remarkable job in rebuilding ecosystems at his many properties—and that includes nurturing a wonderful trout fishery in the Ruby River of Montana, where we all had a great time fly fishing and even catching—and releasing—a number of beautiful rainbows, browns, and cutthroats.

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