Donald Trump evinces little interest in science, and it looks like that apathy is going to severely hurt or even outright nix a lot of federally-funded research. But the damage to science probably won’t be limited to new experiments being run — it might also mean a distortion or discounting of policies informed by science. Case in point: the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, informally known as the Iran nuclear deal. Trump has promised to “dismantle the disastrous deal,” but America’s preeminent physicists are begging him not to do so.
A joint letter written to Trump, 37 signatories, including Nobel laureates, prominent academics, private sector executives, and former advisers to the White House, urged Trump to “preserve this critical U.S. strategic asset” and refrain from scrubbing the Iran deal. The letter argued that the agreement has worked: Roughly 11 months after since its implementation, Iran has dismantled two-thirds of its centrifuges, exported more than 95 percent of its low-enriched uranium stockpile, and not produced uranium with beyond 3.67 percent enrichment. Iran’s heavy-water reactor has been rendered inoperable and its heavy water stockpile slashed to a mere 130 metric tons.
Basically, all of this is a way to explain to the President-Elect why physicists are so confident the deal is working — namely that the “breakout time” for Iran to produce highly enriched uranium has gone from a few weeks to many months. If inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency continue to run their course, the signatories are confident that “no surprise breakout at this facility is possible.”
Why should Trump trust these men? Simple: They are the world’s best experts on what it takes to build a nuke. The letter was organized by one Richard Garwin a physicist who played a big role in helping create the first hydrogen bomb. He’s long been an adviser to the government on nuclear weapons and arms control. Another signatory was Siegfried Hecker, who directed the Los Alamos weapons laboratory in New Mexico from 1986 to 1997.
There are some other pretty important names on the list as well. Freeman Dyson, a brilliant theoretical physicist who has also run into some weird hot water regarding his views on climate change, supports the deal. So does Nobel laureate Burton Richter, who has visited Iran and has some first-hand knowledge of their technology capabilities. On a more somber note, the letter was also signed by Sidney Dress, a theoretical physicist and arms control expert who died on December 21, 2016, at the age of 90.
The takeaway is pretty clear: America’s most qualified nuclear arms experts want to keep the Iran deal in place. Trump, who has previously displayed a stunning lack of knowledge about how nukes work, doesn’t have to listen to them, but if he declines to do so it will represent an act of anti-scientific hubris potentially without historical precedent.