Looking into a crystal ball: Exploring the future direction of the nuclear field

This article was written by Dr Nicola Leveringhaus, Dr Patricia Shamai and Dr Luba Zatsepina
This article was published on
A purple sphere

On 27 September 2023, the Global Nuclear Order Working Group held an online event on the future direction of the nuclear field in Europe in the shadow of the War in Ukraine with several leading nuclear experts. The co-conveners, Dr Nicola Leveringhaus and Dr Patricia Shamai, together with Dr Luba Zatsepina, thank the speakers for engaging in an open and stimulating discussion that is intended to be useful to all scholars in this field.

Two roundtable discussions were held during this event.  The first addressed the following topic: The future of the European field on nuclear issues.  Panellists were asked to consider the following questions:

  1. For early and mid-career researchers based in Europe, what are the necessary topics for the future in our study of nuclear weapons?
  2. How has the field improved in the last ten years, and where can it go further?
  3. How can one maximise their chances of major funding in the field?

The second Russia’s War of Aggression against Ukraine and the Wider Nuclear Field.  Panellists were asked to consider the following questions:

  1. How does the war in Ukraine challenge/confirm nuclear narratives and concepts in the field? 
  2. How has research funding altered because of the war?
  3. How has the field evolved since you started out? (Opportunities for study, career progression, funding, topics)

Two important topics travelled across both panels: first, a discussion of diversity and inclusion, especially as it relates to female nuclear experts in the field; and second, structural, ethical, and intellectual challenges around funding in the nuclear field. Below is a brief overview of the event, together with a list of the speakers who contributed to the event, and recommendations for future reading!

Gender balance in the nuclear field

Fortunately, many of the contributors pointed to a strong and diverse cohort of younger nuclear experts emerging in the field. Yet there remain deep structural challenges to retaining and building female careers within the nuclear field, especially at mid to senior career levels. As several contributors noted, it is not enough to call-out and count the lack of female representation, instead proactive and constructive efforts to undo deeper structural obstacles is needed. There are several ways to do this, from small but significant steps like citing more female experts in publications; to arranging the timing of all-female panels during the day not on early slots. Ultimately, as many contributors noted, a key goal is to make a career in the nuclear field more attractive and accessible to women, especially from the Global South (for more information, please see links at the end of the document) .

Funding in the nuclear field

There were mixed views on the status of funding in the field. Some were very positive, especially in highlighting renewed interest in European governments funding fundamental issues around nuclear weapons, namely how various states, nuclear and non-nuclear see nuclear weapons and their role in security and defence. Others lamented the withdrawal of large-scale foundation money that has dominated the field for so long, namely Macarthur, Stanton, and Rowntree. Altruistic Funding was discussed as an unsatisfying replacement: it has no similar ambitions to build the field or improve diversity for example.

Navigating the ethical aspects of this changing funding landscape was another key theme for discussion. While some contributors noted the importance of maintaining an academic passion for ideas and the importance of understanding funder requirements.  Others focussed more on the conflict of interest behind certain funders, especially in validating nuclear deterrence and techno-optimism projects. To complicate matters in this debate, in the US at least, the withdrawal of large foundation money will likely mean more money will be funnelled through government and military bodies such as STRATCOM. This led to a related point about the greater pressures that exist on early and mid-career professionals to apply for funding to advance their career. As a part solution, some contributors called on the university sector, especially those with large endowments to step up in providing funding not simply at senior/Chair level but at lower researcher and student level to build sustainability into the nuclear field.

Future research and the war in Ukraine

Several areas of future research were identified:

  • Embedding environmental knowledge into nuclear analysis (conditions of survival, nuclear vulnerability, effects of nuclearization on populations, and our understanding of the scope of that vulnerability)
  • Missed analytical opportunities from past; and how we produce knowledge in the field.
  • Theory beyond bipolar structure of IR
  • New emerging technologies
  • Digital humanities; new tools for interpretivist research
  • More on nuclear coercion/blackmail; on advertent (rather than inadvertent) escalation
  • Unpacking historical relations and the nuances of the overly neat term ‘global south’ in the nuclear space
  • After effects of nuclear weapons use
  • ‘Saving’ the arms control narrative and norm against nuclear testing
  • More grand military strategising around nuclear weapons; critical thinking on logic of deterrence
  • Strengthening the ‘nuclear taboo’
  • Revisiting nuclear ethics

Implications of war in Ukraine

Many observed that the War has confirmed nuclear biases across disarmament, non-proliferation, and nuclear deterrence camps. Sadly, academic efforts to debunk nuclear myths continue to endure in international media – specifically around the merits/demerits of Ukraine giving up nuclear capabilities in early 1990.

One contributor noted how the field’s measure of success has changed as a result of the war, from how you reduce the number of nuclear weapons and disarmament; to a negative measure, of how can we prevent use of nuclear weapons?

Another noted that while the War has brought into sharp effect the strain on arms control, these strains existed before the War.

Additionally, one participant emphasised that there is a lot of focus on the socially constructed aspects of deterrence/nuclear weapons in academia in comparison to purely military tangible/material factors. The War intensifies the need for the latter both in our teaching and research.

Recommended reading and helpful links

  • Laura Rose Brown, Laura Considine, Examining ‘gender-sensitive’ approaches to nuclear weapons policy: a study of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, International Affairs, Volume 98, Issue 4, July 2022, Pages 1249–1266,
  • Egeland, K., & Pelopidas, B. (2022). No such thing as a free donation? Research funding and conflicts of interest in nuclear weapons policy analysis. International Relations, 0(0).
  • Adérito Vicente, Polina Sinovets, Julien Theron, eds, Russia’s War on Ukraine

The Implications for the Global Nuclear Order

Initiatives to improve diversity


Panel 1

  • Professor Malfrid Braut-Hegghammer, Professor of Political Science, Founding Director Oslo Nuclear Project, University of Oslo, Norway (Oslo)
  • Dr Michal Smetana, Associate Professor at the Faculty of Social Sciences, Charles University, Coordinator of the Peace Research Center, Prague (PRCP)
  • Dr Cameron Hunter, Ritual Deterrence Project at Department of Political Science, Københavns Universitet, Denmark (UCPH)
  • Professor Benoit Pelopidas, Founding Director, Nuclear Knowledges programme, CERI, France, (SciencesPo)
  • Dr Stephen Herzog, Senior Researcher, Center for Security Studies (ETH Zurich)
  • Professor Andrew Futter, Professor of International Relations, University of Leicester, UK
  • Dr Olamide Samuel, European Leadership Network (UK)

Panel 2

  • Dr Doreen Horschig, Associate Fellow, Project on Nuclear Issues, Center for Strategic & International Studies, US (CSIS)
  • Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova, Director of the International Organizations and Nonproliferation Program, VCDNP (Austria)
  • Sebastian Brixey-Williams, Executive Director (BASIC)
  • Dr Matt Harries, Director of Proliferation and Nuclear Policy (RUSI)
  • Dr Francesca Giovanni, Executive Director of the Project on Managing the Atom, Belfer Center for Science & International Affairs (Harvard)
  • Dr Ulrich Kühn, head Arms Control and Emerging Technologies, Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy, University of Hamburg, Germany (IFSH)
  • Dr Jane Kinninmont, European Leadership Network (UK).

Photo by Szilvia Basso on Unsplash