Freelance science journalist (Scientific American, the New York Times, the Washington Post, among others)

The National Institute for the Scientific Study of Peace (NISSP)

Dear Mr. President:

The technologist Kevin Kelly has urged you to give more support to long-term, blue-sky, globally relevant research. I could not agree more. In that spirit, I recommend that you create a new governmental body, The National Institute for the Scientific Study of Peace, to address by far the most pressing issue of our time: the persistence of war as a means of resolving disputes between nations.

Fields such as evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, and cognitive science are now providing new insights into the brain, emotions, reasoning and the evolution of human nature. Findings from these fields as well as from economics, game theory, anthropology, and political science can help us to understand the causes of war and find ways to reduce its occurrence. Thus far, however, the scientific community has not given war-related questions the serious, sustained attention that they deserve.

The National Institute for the Scientific Study of Peace (NISSP) would redress that insufficiency. Its short-term goal would be to find more effective means of resolving conflict in the world today, wherever it might occur. The long-term goal would be to explore ideas on how nations can make the transition toward permanent disarmament: the elimination of armies, arms, and arms industries. Through its grants and publications, NISSP would encourage ambitious young scientists to see peace as a challenge at least as worthy of pursuit as a unified theory of physics, a cure for cancer, or a cheap, clean, renewable source of energy.

Just as a percentage of the budget for the Human Genome Project is allocated to ethical issues, so part of the Defense Department's budget could be allocated to NISSP. One tenth of one percent should be sufficient. Some might argue that war is not a scientific issue. Certainly it is a dauntingly complex one, with political, economic, and social ramifications. But the same could be said of global warming and population growth.

Scholars such as the Yale political scientist Bruce Russett have noted that democracies rarely wage war against each other. We need more rigorous investigations of correlations such as these, which can identify ways to promote stability within and between nations. What is the link between the risk of war and nations’ political ideologies? Trade and economic policies? Religious and ethnic diversity? Population growth and poverty? Education and womens' rights? Freedom of the press? Availability of energy, food, and other vital resources?

Darwinian theory is sometimes said to imply that conflict is inherent in nature and hence inevitable in human affairs. This view assumes that evolution is primarily what game theorists call a zero-sum game, in which one organism's gain is off-set by another's loss. War is the ultimate zero sum—or, more often, negative—sum game.

But as the journalist Robert Wright points out in his book Nonzero, non-zero-sum processes such as symbiosis and cooperation also play vital roles in evolution. The key to global peace and prosperity, Wright argues, lies in fostering trade, communications, and other mutually beneficial interactions between nations. (Nonzero has been touted by your predecessor in the White House, but don't hold that against it.)

Many scientists will dismiss total, global disarmament, which I believe should be the ultimate goal of our strivings toward peace, as hopelessly unrealistic. These skeptics will argue that at the very least some trans-national organization should always retain a military force, perhaps equipped with nuclear weapons, to deter or suppress attacks from outlaw states or quasi-states, such as Iraq and Al Qaeda.

Certainly global disarmament seems a remote possibility now, but that does not mean we should fatalistically accept armies and armaments, including weapons of mass destruction, as permanent features of civilization. Given the extraordinary advances our species has already achieved in science, technology, medicine, and human rights, surely we are intelligent enough to make not only war but even the threat of war obsolete. The only question is how, and how soon

Yours truly,

John Horgan
Freelance science journalist (Scientific American, the New York Times, the Washington Post, among others)
Author of The End of Science; The Undiscovered Mind; and Rational Mysticism: Dispatches from the Border Between Science and Spirituality (forthcoming).