In The Field

Judging the merits of the hidden

How can you scrutinise a scientific decision that has to remain secret? And if you can’t, how can you be sure the right decision has been taken?

At today’s session on nuclear weapons policy James Acton argued that we should be more open on even such sensitive topics.

Acton, of King’s College London’s War Studies department, has been looking at the UK’s move to build new nuclear submarines rather than refurbishing its existing fleet. Was this the right decision? His rather frustrating conclusion: “it is impossible to judge; we just can’t know”.

“In an open democratic society that is deeply unsatisfactory,” he says. “Governments love to say a decision was taken on the basis of purely technical factors. This becomes deeply problematic when the essential technical details are classified.”

What we need, says Acton, is some kind of peer review for classified decisions. The answer could be a version of the American Jason Group, a set of security cleared but independent experts who can scrutinise and criticise government plans. Another possibility would be setting up version of the American National Academies in countries such as the UK and France.

“If there were people who were influential and were calling for it it could happen,” says Acton.

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