STEMatState: Verifying Arms Control Treaties

Posted by Carol Winick
April 10, 2014
Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization Staff Work on the Operation Desk at CTBTO Headquarters

If a nuclear bomb were tested in some part of the world, how would we know? What if it exploded in the depths of the Ocean? Or in a remote underground location?

One hundred eighty-three countries have signed a treaty -- the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) -- banning all nuclear explosions everywhere.

In order for this treaty to work, we must have confidence in our ability to detect cheating. The International Monitoring System (IMS) allows us to verify that no one is testing nuclear weapons on land, in the ocean, or in the atmosphere, at all times.

How does this work? The IMS is a network of sensors placed around the globe. For example, we need the help of something that can detect and measure rumbles in the Earth—a seismometer. We need to be able detect the sound of an explosion—infrasound and hydroacoustic sensors. We also need the ability to detect radioactive particles and gases-- an air sampler.

Then we need experts with STEM backgrounds. Lots of them. We need engineers and scientists who know how to create these sensors, how to read them, and where to place them. This is where the depth of knowledge in chemistry, geophysical engineering, nuclear physics, biology, and other disciplines is especially critical. Without the science, we couldn’t have the policy.

The Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance (AVC) relies on scientists and engineers to help fulfill many facets of its mission. These experts  have the opportunity to step out of the lab and away from purely technical roles - serving on arms control negotiation delegations, inspection teams and even as ambassadors.

The connections make sense - those who pursue STEM fields tend to be persistent and determined-- attributes that are critical to the arms control and international security mission.

We also count on STEM-educated experts to look to the future for new technologies to incorporate into our verification work. Verification— making sure all of the countries that are party to a treaty comply with the terms of that treaty— is a vital piece of the arms control mission.  Good verification systems require innovation and specialized technical knowledge. To support this, we reach out to the technology community through various activities, such as our arms control challenges, and through efforts like the V-Fund.

So how do we use STEM at State? As Under Secretary Rose Gottemoeller has said, “this is about coming up with the bold ideas that will shape policy in the future. As governments around the world work to enhance and expand our arms control and nonproliferation efforts, we will need your help to find new ways to use the amazing information tools at our disposal. It is increasingly apparent that we are going to need every tool we have, and many we have not yet developed or perhaps even thought of, to fulfill the Prague Agenda.”

A diplomatic corps with a strong foundation in STEM is what allows AVC to successfully implement existing agreements and to develop arms control policies for the negotiation of future agreements.

Our diplomats need the skills developed by those who pursue in STEM fields -- innovation, disciplined analysis, creative thinking, and natural curiosity. They are the skills we need as we create the arms control and verification regimes of the future, preserving international security and creating a world safe from nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction.

About the Author: Carol Winick is a graduate intern in the Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance.

Editor's Note: This entry is one in a series showcasing the application of science, technology, engineering, and math fields to the Department mission. The Department will have an exhibit in the USA Science and Engineering Festival where K-12 students can talk to Department scientists and see first-hand some of the technologies referenced in the series. To learn more about the Department of State's efforts in STEM, visit


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