For the Washington think tanks and foundations that work to control the spread of nuclear weapons, the Doomsday Clock is inching closer to midnight.
That’s because a leading financial backer of their efforts to reduce nuclear proliferation is ending its support, sending shockwaves through arms control institutions that are already struggling to remain influential.
For more than 40 years, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, one of the largest philanthropic organizations in the United States, has been a primary benefactor of a host of non-profit research centers, academic programs and grassroots organizations dedicated to reversing the spread of nuclear weapons and training a generation of arms control experts.
Since 2015 alone, MacArthur directed 231 grants totaling more than $100 million to “nuclear challenges” — in some cases providing more than half the annual funding for individual institutions or programs.
But its recent conclusion that it wasn't achieving its goals and decision to pull out of the arena could be detrimental without alternative sources of funding, according to multiple veterans of the nuclear policy community.
"It's a big blow for the field," said Joan Rohlfing, president and COO of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a non-profit organization dedicated to stemming the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction that has been one of the largest recipients of MacArthur’s grants. “It is moving in the opposite direction of the needs of the community right now.”
Indeed, while she said the MacArthur grants make up only a small share of NTI’s budget, the move couldn't come at a worse time for the wider community of nuclear policy practitioners.
“The threat of nuclear use is growing,” she said. “This is one of the most dangerous periods in our history since the bomb was created.”
Rohlfing cited a litany of worrying trends: “the complexity of nine nuclear weapons states; the tension between nuclear weapons states; things like cyber vulnerabilities to nuclear systems; rising and continuing threat of nuclear terrorism.”
They “all contribute to an extremely dangerous threat environment,” she added. "Now is the time to be really investing more resources in innovation for problem solving within this space."
Other leaders in reducing global nuclear threats are similarly concerned. “We are at a crossroads right now,” added Emma Belcher, president of the Ploughshares Fund, another leading philanthropy focused on nuclear disarmament. “We really need a strong civil society to produce that independent analysis to inform the public and hold governments accountable.”
MacArthur’s unexpected decision was revealed in June with little explanation, in a report published on its website.
"We know that our decision to exit after 2023 will have a wide-ranging impact on the nuclear field," the foundation told POLITICO in a statement in response to questions. "It was a hard decision, and not one we made lightly."
The foundation says that while its decision was based on a number of factors, it cited an assessment it completed last year that concluded it had no “line of sight” to achieve its latest "big bet" on the nuclear front of halting the production of new bomb material.
The foundation stresses, however, that it is not pulling its funding immediately. It is engaged in a three-year, $30 million "capstone" effort to tackle nuclear challenges before it winds down the support in two years.
That final round of funding is aimed at developing a more diverse pipeline of experts, mitigating the security risks of nuclear power and to "rethink” long held assumptions about how to deter nuclear conflict, according to MacArthur.
But "at the conclusion of the capstone grants in 2023," it told POLITICO, "MacArthur will exit the nuclear field." The funding is expected to be directed to a host of other policy work and issues the foundation supports, from combating climate change to education and public health.
That could be dire news to a host of major beneficiaries of MacArthur funding over the years.
Other major recipients of funding are the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where then-Vice President Joe Biden laid out his nuclear policy vision in 2017, and the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, which has trained a generation of government nuclear experts.
Some organizations depend on the foundation for a major share of their annual budgets.
For example, the Arms Control Association, a Washington think tank with a $1.6 million budget, last fall was awarded a one-year, $400,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation.
Daryl Kimball, the organization's executive director, said he remains puzzled as to why, if MacArthur determined it could not meet the goals it had set in the nuclear area, it didn’t just change its strategy.
“It would be a mistake to believe that nuclear weapons no longer pose an existential threat to humanity,” Kimball said in an interview. “Investments in civil society efforts to halt and reverse [the] growing global nuclear arms race and get back on the path towards a world without nuclear weapons are as important, if not more important and urgent, than ever.”
Robert Gallucci, a former president of MacArthur and diplomat who helped secure Russian nuclear weapons after the Cold War and negotiated with North Korea over its nuclear program, called the decision "unwise and profoundly regrettable."
He also cited "the continuing threat to national and international security presented by the possession and spread of nuclear weapons."
The organization that has been operating the Doomsday Clock, a measure of the risk of global annihilation, has also been dependent on MacArthur for decades.
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which was founded in 1945 by the scientists who invented the atomic bomb to engage the public on the risks of the nuclear age, received a $700,000 grant two years ago, said Rachel Bronson, the president and CEO. It’s annual budget is $2.8 million.
“The percentage that goes into the community from MacArthur is a big deal,” she said. “They’ve gotten us through some very difficult times. It’s really disappointing they are stepping away.”
The clock, which is now at 100 seconds to midnight, she added, is “the closest it's ever been to midnight in the history of the clock.”
Another group that is bracing for fallout is the Project on Managing the Atom at Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, which says it has relied on MacArthur for more than half of its funding.
“MacArthur was providing something like 40 to 55 percent of all the funding worldwide of the non-government funding worldwide on nuclear policy,” said Matthew Bunn, who directs the program.
Without such support, Bunn and others worry about losing voices that have shaped nuclear policy in Washington and beyond for decades.
He has outlined a series of nuclear policy decisions that were influenced by such nongovernmental organizations.
One is the Global Threat Reduction Initiative initiated during the George W. Bush administration and expanded on under former President Barack Obama that removed supplies of highly enriched uranium, the key ingredient for atomic bombs, from vulnerable reactors around the world.
Another was the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia, which was ratified by the U.S. Senate in 2010, and extended for another five years by President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin in January.
“A reasonable case can be made that had the non-government community funded by MacArthur not existed, the treaty might not have been ratified,” Bunn contends. “Had that happened, we would today be in a world with no limits at all on U.S. or Russian nuclear forces, for the first time in half a century.”
Some have even argued that nuclear arms control and disarmament groups played a significant role in ending the Cold War.
More recently, leading beneficiaries of MacArthur funding such as the Arms Control Association and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists have also been on the front lines in the fight to scale back a series of new nuclear weapons.
Many of these programs have also been incubators for generations of nuclear experts, including those who have filled top positions on the National Security Council and at the State, Defense and Energy Departments.
One high-profile example: Bonnie Jenkins, Biden's nominee to be undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, who studied at the Harvard program.
MacArthur’s decision to back out also comes as other leading philanthropies in the nuclear area have either pulled out or curtailed their level of funding in recent years, including the Ford Foundation, Hewlett Foundation, Skoll Foundation and W. Alton Jones Foundation.
"There is no obvious successor," said Rohlfing at NTI. "We're going to need to work hard to develop new relationships with donors and help make the case for why this is important."
The Ploughshares Fund’s Belcher, who also previously oversaw MacArthur’s nuclear challenges portfolio, said the wider community will need to rethink how it raises money.
“The nuclear danger is growing,” she said. “I think looking at traditional foundations might not be the answer. I think this is an area that could be very attractive for people who haven't invested in this before — entrepreneurs in their own right who may have more of a tech background. We could tap into a type of different funding than we’ve seen before.”
“I think for more savvy and dedicated, maybe daring investors, there’s a real opportunity," she added. "The field is ripe for investment."