RCD Request for Proposals

A substantial amount of the funding for the Reinventing Civil Defense Project is earmarked for sub-projects that will help to increase our understanding of the possibilities of raising nuclear salience.

Saturday Evening Post, fallout map from 1963
A watercolor map of nuclear fallout from the Saturday Evening Post, 1963

The form of these projects is intentionally vague. A few of the ideas suggested in our original funding proposal include:

  • A virtual-reality experience for understanding the scale and scope of nuclear weapons
  • Targeted histories of the American and Soviet Civil Defense experiences, with a focus on their successes and failures at raising salience
  • A meta-review paper of the psychological/sociological literature on how messaging and training changes risk awareness and perception over the long-term
  • Explorations into the mediums of theater, graphic novels, video games, etc., as a means of raising nuclear salience

These are meant to be suggestive of the breadth of the scope we are interested in. These projects would have to be “completed” to some degree on a relatively short (in most cases, under 1 year) timescale, and so many of these may only be projects to create “suggestive prototypes” that we can use in our workshops and discussions.

If you are interested, please click here to read the full Request for Proposals. Note that submissions are due by 5:00PM EST on Friday, October 20, 2017. We have tried to intentionally keep the amount of application materials to a minimum. Funding decisions will be made by our Advisory Committee.

If you have questions, please contact reinventingcivildefense@gmail.com; we are happy to give more information and clarify anything that is unclear here.

Applicants need not be academics, or in or affiliated with academic institutions.

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Tensions with North Korea increase questions about Civil Defense

Saber-rattling, ICBM tests, and tough-talk from Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un have resulted in an unusual amount of discussion about the possibilities of a nuclear attack against the United States. The Principal Investigators of the Reinventing Civil Defense Project have been featured in several national and international news stories about nuclear preparedness, nuclear fear, and nuclear salience.

"Nuclear Anxiety Returns to America," The Atlantic (August 12, 2017).
“Nuclear Anxiety Returns to America,” The Atlantic (August 12, 2017).

Below is a sampling from last week’s press coverage:

Lizzie Johnson, “Can SF plan for surviving a North Korean nuclear strike?San Francisco Chronicle (8 August 2017):

Public awareness is an important aspect of defense, said Alex Wellerstein, a nuclear weapons historian and assistant professor at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J. He recently started Reinventing Civil Defense, a nonprofit that seeks to renew public education efforts about nuclear threats. 

The chances of North Korea being able to target San Francisco and score a direct hit are still low, because Pyongyang hasn’t tested whether its missiles can reliably carry the weight of a nuclear warhead, Wellerstein said. But a near-hit would be bad enough — a missile striking anywhere on the mainland U.S. would probably kill thousands. 

“There are a few cities and counties that have tried to reach out to the public, but it is still very rare and somewhat idiosyncratic,” Wellerstein said. “Ventura County has been doing this for a few years now. … It has attracted some attention and some ridicule. Is this effective? I don’t know.”

Casey Tolan and Matthias Gafni, “North Korean threats make Bay Area ponder the unthinkable: a nuclear attack,” The Mercury News (9 August 2017):

Julie Pullen, a professor at Stevens Institute of Technology who studies civil defense issues, said dramatic headlines about North Korea provided a good chance for officials to spread the word about best practices in the unlikely event of an attack. “I don’t think this is an imminent threat,” Pullen said, “but it’s an opportunity for people to learn about nuclear weapons, particularly younger people who didn’t grow up in the Cold War.”

Robinson Meyer, “Nuclear Anxiety Returns to America,” The Atlantic (12 August 2017): 

Kristyn Karl, a professor of political science at Stevens Institute of Technology, agreed that the public’s interest in nuclear weapons was way up—even if their understanding wasn’t. “The public is currently more aware of nuclear threats than they have been since the end of the Cold War,” she told me in an email.

That doesn’t mean they know much about them.

Americans flunk questions about basic nuclear security, Karl said, “such as identifying nuclear states, the scale of nuclear arsenals, etc.” Younger Americans also have little experience with nuclear weapons, especially compared with Baby Boomers.

Alex Wellerstein, a historian of nuclear weapons, also at the Stevens Institute, agreed that people seem more interested now. But he worries that they won’t stay that way once this crisis passes.

“It’s clear there is a sharp uptick of interest on nuclear questions,” he said in an email. “The question is, what kind of interest is it? Is it the kind of interest that will lead to a more sustained public interest on these topics? Or is it an ephemeral fear of the sort that comes and goes in a crisis?”

RCD in the news: “Duck and cover 2.0: How North Korea is prompting new efforts to prepare for a nuclear attack”

The Reinventing Civil Defense project was featured in a news story by Ralph Vartabedian and W.J. Hennigan in the Los Angeles Times,Duck and cover 2.0: How North Korea is prompting new efforts to prepare for a nuclear attack.” An excerpt is below.

“The North Korean government this month launched a Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missile, which U.S. experts said has enough range to reach Alaska. (Korean Central News Agency)”

Fleets of big black trucks, harbor boats and aircraft, equipped with radiation sensors and operated by specially trained law enforcement teams, are ready to swing into action in Los Angeles for a catastrophe that nobody even wants to think about: a North Korean nuclear attack.

American cities have long prepared for a terrorist attack, even one involving nuclear weapons or a “dirty bomb,” but North Korea’s long-range missile and weapons programs have now heightened concerns along the West Coast over increasing vulnerability to a strike. […]

As tension rises, the inevitable question is: How well prepared are Los Angeles and other U.S. cities for a nuclear strike? The answer is somewhat unexpected. After two decades of fighting terrorism, law enforcement agencies and the federal government today are better equipped and trained to handle the aftermath of a limited nuclear attack than they ever were during the Cold War. Yet generations of Americans have grown up without learning how to protect themselves in the aftermath of a detonation. […]

This month, Wellerstein and other researchers launched Reinventing Civil Defense, a nonprofit project that over the next two years will examine how best to reeducate the American public on the nuclear threat — one that never went away. It is being funded by a $500,000 grant from Carnegie Corp. of New York.

“If we live in a world where a nuclear detonation is possible, and we do, then people should be informed on what that means,” he said. “It’s something that’s been nonexistent in our society since the late 1980s.”

Click here for the full story.

Announcing the Reinventing Civil Defense project

The Reinventing Civil Defense project, at the Stevens Institute of Technology, has been created thanks to a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York (CCNY). It is one of 11 projects funded by a joint effort between the CCNY and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation “to support projects aimed at reducing nuclear risk through innovative and solutions-oriented approaches.”

Reinventing Civil Defense is a project dedicated to developing new communication strategies regarding nuclear risk. It brings together a diverse group of experts from academia, government, public policy, entertainment, journalism, and the arts, and will seek to fund many smaller sub-projects that will serve as focal points for thinking about how to increase “nuclear salience” — the lived experience of nuclear weapons risks — among a variety of audiences.

Professors Kristyn Karl, Julie Pullen, and Alex Wellerstein, at Castle Point Lookout at the Stevens Institute of Technology. Photo by Lina Kirby.
Professors Kristyn Karl, Julie Pullen, and Alex Wellerstein, at Castle Point Lookout at the Stevens Institute of Technology. Photo by Lina Kirby.

The principal investigators are three faculty members at Stevens from different disciplines: Kristyn Karl, an assistant professor of political science; Julie Pullen, an associate professor of oceanography and meteorology; and Alex Wellerstein, an assistant professor of Science and Technology Studies and a historian of science. They will coordinate interdisciplinary investigations crossing through the social sciences, the arts, science communication, and the physical sciences.

Reinventing Civil Defense gets its name in reference to the Cold War policies of Civil Defense, which were attempted by various governments, notably the United States, to educate their citizens on the means by which they could improve their survivability in the event of a nuclear detonation or nuclear war. It is often associated with the “Duck and Cover” drills of the 1950s, or the fallout shelters of the 1960s. Civil Defense became increasingly controversial and politically polarized over the course of the Cold War: opposed by some as misleading and complacent, invoked by others as a moral and strategic necessity, the policies died a quiet death in the late 1980s. With the end of the Cold War, US governmental efforts at Civil Defense essentially ended, being transformed into the discipline of Emergency Management.

Duck and Cover drill, 1950s

The Reinventing Civil Defense project deliberately invokes Civil Defense, despite its controversies, for several reasons. For one, Civil Defense programs embodied a major way in which American citizenry understood and encountered the real questions of nuclear risk in the Cold War. “Duck and Cover,” for example, was not merely about hiding under desks — it was about internalizing the reality that nuclear war was possible, and perhaps even likely. This is a sensibility that, with the end of the Cold War, is entirely missing from younger generations of Americans, despite the fact that nuclear risks still remain.

Second, we are also interested specifically in exploring what level-headed, non-partisan, empirically-informed approaches to Civil Defense might look like in the 21st century, especially with respects to single-city nuclear detonations (e.g., nuclear terrorism, or single missile attacks), as opposed to the all-out nuclear war scenarios of the Cold War. It would be a mistake to assume that the Civil Defense strategies of the 1950s and 1960s would work today: trust in government is lower, technological infrastructure has in many cases changed dramatically, and the nature of the threat has also changed.