Laura Grego: Concerned Scientist

Laura Grego: Concerned Scientist

Laura Grego: Concerned Scientist

By Daniel Klein


The Union of Concerned Scientists built their offices to be energy efficient, with wide windows designed to let in lots of natural light. Today, there was none, and the overcast December sky soaked the office in a grey pallor. Fat raindrops plinked against the glass. I sit in one of those offices, discussing nuclear missiles and Mutually Assured Destruction with Laura Grego, PhD, a Senior Scientist on their Global Security Program.

She tells me that everyone working in nuclear issues has “a moment” when the full scope of its insanity becomes apparent. She remains charming and friendly throughout our conversation, but tension roils under the surface — “Oh my God, nuclear weapons. We could easily just end human civilization… this is bananas.” It’s a lot of pressure for a Monday morning.

Grego began her career as an astrophysicist, but found herself more interested in problems here on earth. Lately, she’s been busier than normal. The past few weeks were a flurry of phone calls and emails, a frantic response to North Korea’s long-range missile test. The missile had a range of approximately 8,100 miles, more than enough to reach anywhere in the continental United States.

Robert Loftis, the State Department’s Acting Coordinator for Reconstruction & Stabilization, says the intelligence community is “concerned” by the speed of North Korea‘s testing. “They’re further along than our intelligence [indicated].” Although he claims that the idea that North Korea would threaten us first is “farfetched”, he carefully notes that they certainly could be a danger, if provoked. “The ‘raining fire and fury’ comments don’t really help matters all that much.”

Grego’s current focus is to communicate the technical limitations of the US’s missile defense system. Basically, the defenses don’t work. “It’s never been properly tested,” she explains, a view shared by Loftis. According to him, our successful missile defenses have been “controlled experiments” — carefully arranged circumstances with a known number of decoys. And, although the exact capabilities of the US missile defense systems are not in the public domain, the data that is shows a system that fails far too regularly for comfort.

Regardless of the efficacy of our defenses, Loftis is skeptical: there are just too many vulnerable targets — “[we] can’t stop North Korea from retaliating,” says Loftis. Grego’s biggest challenge is communicating the system’s shortcomings, as well as the urgent need for diplomatic solutions, to an unfriendly administration. “There’s a lot of lying about missile defense,” she laments. The people selling these weapons “make a lot of money.”

Maybe surprisingly, nuclear issues are a fairly small part of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ (UCS) overall scope. In the late ‘60s, MIT faculty created the UCS to address the “misuse of scientific and technical knowledge” as it threatens “the existence of mankind,” per their founding statement. Their mission: uniting the scientists and engineers of the United States to take action against the “dangers already unleashed” while providing scientific knowledge and leadership.

In practice, this means their predominant focus has been on environmental issues — climate change, pollution, and sustainable agriculture — as well as the need for clean energy. These issues, while often politically challenging, are defined by acts of ignorance by society, not deliberate malice. Very few people, in the grand scheme of things, deliberately pollute, intentionally try to make cars less fuel efficient, or purposely make our food less healthy and nutritious. Loftis notes that, despite the dangers, nuclear war is still a “low probability” event, compared to the more certain harms of global warming — which Grego deems “[an] existential threat.” Nuclear weapons are another matter entirely. Human beings build them on purpose, and in large numbers.

The stress doesn’t carry over to the office kitchen, which is ordinary in every way. Grego pours herself a cup of coffee. The carton of milk has “Laura” and “Sharing with you!” written on the top in marker. Laura tells me about her children and the colleges they’re attending (Amherst and Clark). She talks about her husband — he’s an engineer working in construction. She talks about her guinea pigs. She talks about how she loves to dance. It is life, at turns ordinary, boring, and precious. She talks about the office, how much she loves working there (“Fifteen years!”), and how kind and supportive everyone is. She confessed that some of her younger coworkers call her “dance mom,” a tale I corroborated with the office manager. He assured me the nickname was “well earned” at the year’s holiday party. Grego’s smile fades as we head back, moving from the bright fluorescence of the kitchen to the rainy view of her office, her blue eyes greying in the pallid light.

It is the command and control of nuclear weapons that most worries Grego. She chooses her words carefully: “It’s a single person who has the ability to launch nuclear weapons. There’s not a committee. There’s no review.” A note of bitter displeasure enters her voice as she explains the rationale — it is meant to streamline the use of nuclear weapons, allowing for immediate launch. “It’s a problem in general that one person could call about the destruction of the civilized world.” Concerned, I would later ask Loftis whether this was true, and what, if anything, could be done. His answer: not much. The system we have is meant to handle a surprise soviet attack — it “breaks down” if we strike first. Only congress has the power to change how the country handles our nuclear weapons, and they have “abdicated their responsibilities.”

Grego’s is an unenviable task. Her primary worry is that overconfidence of our own defenses will lead people to take hardline stances and prematurely abandon diplomatic solutions. “Sometimes your victories,” she says, “are making sure something worse doesn’t happen.” Her eyes glance repeatedly at the clock; she has a phone call scheduled. She politely refuses my request to schedule another interview, and I take my cue to exit. Stepping out into the cold December day, I cannot see the sun.