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In major extension of MIT nuclear policy studies, Gavin begins work as first Frank Stanton Chair

Historian will facilitate collaboration among political scientists, historians, and policymakers
Professor Francis Gavin is the first Frank Stanton Chair in Nuclear Security Policy at MIT.
Professor Francis Gavin is the first Frank Stanton Chair in Nuclear Security Policy at MIT.
Photo: Stuart Darsch

Politics has been part of human culture, and the subject of scholarly inquiry, for millennia. But only 70 years have passed since the epochal arrival of nuclear weapons, and our understanding of nuclear proliferation, deterrence, and arms control, and their complex relationships with traditional political issues, is still a work in progress.

The Department of Political Science and its interdisciplinary Security Studies Program (part of the Center for International Studies) have been deeply engaged with these topics since the 1970s. 2014 marks a major extension of this engagement, with the appointment of Francis Gavin as the first Frank Stanton Chair in Nuclear Policy Studies, on the strength of a $5 million endowment from the Stanton Foundation.

“We’re in a renaissance of nuclear studies now, and MIT is at the center of it — a majority of the scholars whose work I most admire have come from this program,” says Gavin, who joins the Institute after 14 years at the University of Texas at Austin, where he launched and led the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law and served as the first Tom Slick Professor of International Affairs at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs.

“The Security Studies Program brings together scientists and the engineering community; military people who have to deal with the realities of command and control, custody, and training; and people who worry about diplomacy and the politics that surround it,” Gavin says. “It’s a truly interdisciplinary environment, and it makes me feel like a student all over again.”

Gavin earned PhD and master’s degrees from the University of Pennsylvania, a master’s degree from Oxford, and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Chicago, and he has held numerous fellowships, including posts at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and Center for International Affairs and a senior research fellowship at the Nobel Institute in Norway. He began work at MIT in January, and he is planning to teach graduate and undergraduate classes on nuclear politics and history and on international security and U.S. foreign policy.

He is also eager to encourage and facilitate “research that has true policy relevance — on front-page issues like Iran and North Korea,” he says. “Our scholarship can help policymakers create better policies.” To this end, he hopes to connect MIT with the Strauss Center’s Nuclear Studies Research Initiative, which fosters collaboration among historians, political scientists, and policymakers.

The new chair honors distinguished CBS executive Frank Stanton, who was introduced to nuclear issues while serving on a presidential panel in 1954. Stanton’s assignment was to develop a plan for maintaining national and international communications following a nuclear attack.

“The Stanton Foundation has provided incredible opportunities to develop better understanding of nuclear dangers, not just for me but for senior scholars at other universities, and for younger scholars with their fellowships,” Gavin says.

The appointment of Gavin is somewhat unconventional, as he is a historian by training rather than a political scientist. “I don’t know that there’s another political science department in the country that would do that; it shows why MIT is such an extraordinary place,” says Gavin, whose recently published “Nuclear Statecraft: History and Strategy in America’s Atomic Age” draws on years of research into declassified archival documents to challenge conventional assumptions about how U.S. nuclear policy was developed.

“There was a sense among many of the great thinkers that the larger issues of nuclear dynamics were resolved 40 years ago,” says Gavin, “but they weren’t, and still aren’t, and probably won’t be. Wrestling with complex technical issues is often a challenge in the policy world and in a democracy, whether it’s the National Security Agency, cyber warfare, or nuclear technology. It’s important to understand the technology, but also to understand that everything is done in a political context, and frankly, it’s the political context that matters more — politics always trumps technology.”

With this in mind, Gavin says he hopes to expose students and researchers to the historian’s thought process and methods, including quantitative and formal tools. “I’m convinced that to understand international politics, you have to understand history and think historically,” he says. “What’s so gratifying is that everyone in the department seems to agree, and that’s rare. It’s a big part of why this is my dream job — having the smartest colleagues and the best grad students, working in a friendly, collaborative organizational culture, and living in an area that’s a Hollywood for intellectual life.”

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