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Scientists in SDI Debate Look for Middle Ground

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.—University of New Mexico physicist Charles Bickel admits to being surprised by his encounter last summer with Roger Hagengruber, vice president for exploratory systems at Sandia National Laboratories. "I had suspected we were further apart on SDI," he said. The revelation came as the two physicists participated in the Trinity Conference last June in Santa Fe. Before a public forum and assisted by a mediator, they engaged in a process called "dialoguing." After stating the

By | January 26, 1987

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.—University of New Mexico physicist Charles Bickel admits to being surprised by his encounter last summer with Roger Hagengruber, vice president for exploratory systems at Sandia National Laboratories. "I had suspected we were further apart on SDI," he said.

The revelation came as the two physicists participated in the Trinity Conference last June in Santa Fe. Before a public forum and assisted by a mediator, they engaged in a process called "dialoguing." After stating their views on SDI, they were encouraged to look for points of agreement. Despite the fact that Bickel believes the country spends too much on defense and Hagengruber thinks defense expenditures are justified, the two ultimately agreed that the level of SDI funding is unwarranted given the current level of knowledge.

Santa Fe's Trinity Forum, which sponsored the event, is one of three grassroots organizations that have tackled the bitter controversy surrounding the Strategic Defense Initiative and research into nuclear weapons in this country by a series of conferences and community forums aimed at narrowing the differences among scientists.

The attempt to hold a dialogue on nuclear weapons was begun five years ago by a group in Palo Alto, Calif., led by psychiatrist Gary Lapid and psychologist Craig Schindler. Using the name Project Victory to emphasize the need for both sides to win an argument to avoid nuclear annthilation, the group uses facilitators who have received academic or on-the-job training in mediation and conflict resolution. Facilitators encourage conference participants to pinpoint their fears and come to a better understanding of the other side's views, to exchange information rather than accusations.

"It's a long-term process," said Bruce Berlin, who organized the Trinity Conference held here last summer. "I think we're going to bring people together who don't normally sit down and discuss these issues."

Trinity was one of three such conferences held last year in New Mexico, the home of Sandia and Los Alamos national laboratories. All three focused on the administration's SDI program. The meetings drew prominent scientists from both camps. But opinions were mixed on the value of the discussions.

"Dialoguing is not a verb, and it's not new," scoffed Richard Garwin, a physicist at the IBM Watson Research Center in New York. An outspoken critic of SDI and a participant in the Trinity Conference in Santa Fe, Garwin said people attend such meetings not to hear a different perspective but rather because "in a democracy, you're supposed to at least pretend to hear what the other side is saying."

But physicist William Brinkman, vice president of research at Sandia, feels that "our choice of things we could pursue may be different as a result of hearing from opposing scientists and others from outside the defense community. "It's clear we could develop a whole variety of weapons that people don't want because they're too warlike. We can make weapons that do a lot of different things, such as enhance radiation, but I'm not sure people want them."

Reaching Out

Brinkman attended the Second New Mexico Space Conference held here in November and organized by Alan Reed of Space Research Associates. Another participant was John Browne, a nuclear physicist and associate director for defense research at Los Alamos.

"Scientists can't isolate themselves from the world," Browne said. "We don't make policy, but we have to understand policy and how we impact it." He said that the discussions about SDI can help scientists within the weapons research industry "get a better understanding of where people who are not in our scientific culture are coming from."

Brinkman and Browne believe the conferences also offer them a chance to improve relations with the public. They consider it a valuable forum to describe the progress being made on SDI, and as a way to clear up what Browne called "the misconception that people who work in nuclear weapons labs like nuclear weapons."

Still, organizers of the conferences see the magnitude of the project ($3.5 billion appropriated in 1987 alone) as sufficient reason to seek an understanding between supporters and opponents. While the 1985 conference focused on the merits of SDI as a defense system, November's meeting looked instead at how it will influence the type of research that is funded.

"It's not just military implications that are important," said Reed. "Now that it's here, how will it evolve?"

Weisberg is a freelance writer in Santa Fe, N.M.

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