Scary Stakes: MacArthur's Latest "Big Bet" Targets an Evolving Nuclear Menace

When the MacArthur Foundation was devising what would become the next chapter in its philanthropic story, President Julia Stasch and company busted out a metaphorical red pen and marked a number of programs for deletion.

The goal was to turn MacArthur into a more streamlined and agile organization, oneas Stasch put it—that is making “big bets” and “tackling some of the world’s most profound issues as they rapidly evolve.”

Nuclear security may not appear to be one of those “rapidly evolving” issues. Not at first glance anyway. But if you scratch the surface just a little bit here, you’ll see just how much the nuclear landscape has changed over the past few decades. And in many respects, it’s even scarier now than it was 30 years ago when MacArthur was one of the early leaders paying attention to nuclear threats.

Related: Nuclear Security: Funders are Still on the Case, But Reinforcements Are Needed

Although the foundation plans to wind down its Peace and International Security program over the next couple of years, that funding sunset doesn’t apply to nuclear threats. In fact, when the foundation announced it was shutting down Peace and International Security funding, it also declared that it would be “exploring the elements and feasibility of a big bet based on a new approach to reducing the threat posed by nuclear weapons.”

Well, it looks like that the exploratory phase is over, given that MacArthur recently announced its latest "big bet"—the Nuclear Challenges program.  

MacArthur’s commitment to nuclear security may not be new, but its Nuclear Challenges strategy is. The foundation is zeroing in ever more sharply on “decreasing the availability of, and reliance on, weapons-usable nuclear material.” The challenge, according to the foundation, is to ensure nuclear technology and materials will continue to be used for “peaceful purposes” while at the same time, decreasing the threats this stuff pose to security. 

This is urgent work in an era when nonstate actors have become better organized and financed than ever before, and in a world where the "key ingredients for nuclear weapons—highly enriched uranium and plutonium—are in plentiful supply," as MacArthur points out. Meanwhile, nuclear weapons are in the hands of several countries that don't have anything near the sophisticated command and control systems of top powers like the U.S. and Russia. Pakistan, which has 120 warheads, comes quickly to mind. 

Even as everyone fixates on climate change (another focal point for MacArthur) as the great doomsday threat of our time, nuclear weapons pose a more immediate risk of catastrophe. Just imagine even the most primitive nuclear weapon going off in New York City, or a bungled crisis in South Asia resulting in a mega city like Mumbai or Karachi getting nuked. 

Still, now is not the moment to be gunning to extinguish nuclear technology altogether, since it offers a carbon-free way to generate energy in a world that desperately needs to wean itself from fossil fuels. MacArthur is keen to find a way to navigate this tension, and we can't help noticing the connection between two of it big bets. 

MacArthur isn’t going it alone in its nuclear work, and recently joined forces with another stalwart funder in the field—the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Carnegie and MacArthur have partnered up to make an up to $25 million commitment on a Civil Society Gift Basket. The so-called “gift basket” money will be used to over the course of one year (2016 to 2017) “to secure nuclear materials and reduce the threat they pose.”

MacArthur has long been funding programs working to keep fissile materials like enriched uranium and plutonium out of the wrong hands. As well, the foundation has invested a good deal of money in beefing up the number of authorities in the nuclear security field on all fronts including experts in policy, academia, research, and science. Its Nuclear Challenges commitment sounds a bit like it’s more of the same work, just packaged differently.

In many respects that’s true. The main difference now is that the foundation is going in deeper and sharpening its focus on the greatest areas of risk. Who cares whether this is a new bet. What matters is that it's an important one. 

Related: MacArthur Backs a Push at Stanford to Train Next Gen Nuclear Security Experts