The Washington Post reports today that the ranks of experts in nuclear weapons forensics is declining, and that the situation requires immediate action by government to avoid a crisis.
Staff writer Spencer S. Hsu says:
Two leading U.S. scientific groups warned yesterday that, in the next 15 years, as many as half of the nation’s relatively few experts in identifying smuggled nuclear materials and detonated-bomb components may retire.
No doubt, these are important and valuable skills, especially with expanding nuclear proliferation by Pakistan, North Korea, and possibly others. But, this seems to be a labor market with a small niche. Hsu says that according to the American Physical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, there are only 35 to 50 of these experts and “[t]he pipeline of young researchers who could replace the[m] is almost empty.”
Given the academic training required to develop this expertise, 30 years is probably close to the upper bound of how many years such an expert can reasonably expect to practice a career in nuclear forsensics, assuming one could stay fully employed doing it. If the supply of experts were uniformly distributed across that 30 year career, 1/30th would be expected to retire in any given year. The proportion that would retire over 15 years is 15/30ths, or 1/2. Expecting half of a group of experts to retire over 15 years seems about normal.
Physicists tend to be very smart in mathematics, so something very important must be missing from Hsu’s account, or tis issue is secondary to a different objective.
Hsu mentions another objective. He says the APS and AAAS have other policy recommendations in their report, and this is where the real action may be. They are calling on the government to spend more money on them:
The scientists’ report called for the development of faster and more accurate field equipment, as well as modeling and simulation technologies; the creation of a comprehensive sample-matching database of nuclear materials; national simulations; and the establishment of independent expert panels to measure progress and advise the U.S. government in case of an emergency.
Several items on the APS home page display a primary interest in securing more federal spending on the group’s priorities:
- “Congressional Members Ask President Bush to Include $300M for DOE-SC In FY ’08 Supplemental Request”
- “APS Urges Congress and White House to Revisit Fiscal Year 2008 Science Funding in January”
- “Sacrificing Science: The U.S. federal government must do a better job of funding basic science and engineering research if it wants the nation to remain globally competitive, according to a Chicago-Tribune editorial”
The report that was the subject of Hsu’s Washington Post article is not yet posted on the APS website.