Commentary July 17, 2020

Bringing technical expertise to policy debates

Profile of a CISAC Fellow: Jason Reinhardt, Distinguished Member of Technical Staff at Sandia National Laboratories
Several people sitting at a long table.
Jason Reinhardt participated the 16th PIIC Beijing Seminar on “Maintaining Global Strategic Stability and Promoting International Nuclear Cooperation” in October 16-17, 2019 in Shenzhen, China. Siegfried Hecker

Jason Reinhardt was leading a multi-lab effort within Sandia National Laboratories to improve the United States’ ability to detect and prevent illegal nuclear material from entering the country.

A senior member of Sandia’s technical staff at that time, Reinhardt would explain the technical dimensions of his work to policy experts and inevitably hear the same questions: “How do I understand the risk?” or “How do I compare the different risks involved?”

Reinhardt wanted to know more about the discipline of risk analysis so, in 2011, he returned to Stanford (where he’d earned an M.S. in Electrical Engineering in 2005) to pursue a PhD in Management Science and Engineering, with Prof. M. E. Paté-Cornell, the department’s founding chair, as his advisor. He focused on creating a systematic and risk analytic look at the technical and political components of nuclear deterrence.

Reinhardt also worked with Siegfried Hecker, a professor in Management Science and Engineering who was then the Science Co-Director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC). Hecker introduced Reinhardt to his CISAC colleagues and encouraged him to attend the weekly seminars where political scientists, historians and diplomats presented their ideas on critical international issues.

“CISAC was one of the places where policy-inclined technical people could sort of bathe in policy discussions for a while,” Reinhardt said. “I use that terminology, really just soak in it.”

In the seminars, lectures and other events, Reinhardt studied how policy experts thought and talked. “I came over there and started listening,” he said. “Oh, that’s what the debate’s really about. I’m a lab geek, I thought it was a technical problem.”

If the problem were strictly technical, Reinhardt would have been able to speak with authority. He had no trouble discussing probability distributions, modeling approaches and complicated mathematical equations with other science-minded souls. But nuclear deterrence demands collaboration across academic disciplines—the hard sciences as well as political theory, international relations, and economics—and Reinhardt wanted policy makers to see the full picture and understand his ideas and their implications for policy.

“CISAC was a bootcamp of how to interact in the policy world, how to understand how that world thinks and acts,” Reinhardt said.

While pursuing his PhD, Reinhardt accepted a pre-doctoral fellowship at CISAC and enjoyed exploring this new world. But, an engineer by training, he also wanted to dig into a project where he could flex his technical skills while sitting elbow-to-elbow with political scientists, international relations experts and other policy wonks.

Hecker, an internationally-recognized expert in nuclear security and a former director of Los Alamos National Labs, understood the desire and had the solution. Hecker had been working with the Russian government for years, beginning after the Soviet Union broke apart in 1989, to secure Russian nuclear assets. For nearly as long, he’d also been working with the Chinese government to make sure their nuclear assets did not fall into the wrong hands.

Man speaking to room full of people
Siegfried Hecker presenting to American and Chinese national security scholars. Jason Reinhardt

Hecker invited Reinhardt to join the project at the Stanford Center at Peking University, a mini-campus that serves as a bridge across the Pacific for faculty and students from Stanford’s seven schools.

“Jason was just superb,” Hecker said of Reinhardt. “When you combine his Sandia background with his work with Eisabeth Pate-Cornell at MS&E, you have some of the world’s leading expertise in systems analysis which means a very methodical, engineering look at how you make decisions under complex environments.” 

In China, Reinhardt teamed with Larry Brandt and Leonard Connell, who were both CISAC affiliates and risk analysts at Sandia, to create a course that applied a systems analysis approach to nuclear terrorism. They ran the exercise with Chinese professionals to explore the probability of terrorists obtaining and transporting nuclear materials.

“We had a proper seat to learn how Track II interactions between countries are done,” Reinhardt said. 

Man behind a podium
Jason Reinhardt giving talk at SCPKU on systems approach to verification of North Korea’s Nuclear program in Beijing, Oct. 2019. Siegfried Hecker

Hecker, Reinhardt and the others traveled back and forth to China a few times a year—until COVID stopped international trips—to share their knowledge and deepen the understanding of the risks. The experience energized Reinhardt.

“Where else are you going to get that?” he asked. “I was able to sit down and have a technical analytic discussion about a nuclear issue with Chinese researchers who are thinking about the same thing.”

On Stanford’s campus, Reinhardt often found himself in equally intense conversations with CISAC faculty and international security experts like former Secretary of Defense William Perry, Scott Sagan, a leading authority on the politics of nuclear risk, and Martha Crenshaw, who is among the world’s top experts in terrorism.

Reinhardt also observed courses like “International Security in a Changing World,” which Crenshaw co-taught with Amy Zegart, a political scientist who advised the Clinton and Bush Administrations on foreign policy, national security and intelligence. 

When he returned to Sandia, with the wealth of international experience and a newly minted PhD, Reinhardt was quickly promoted to a role where he oversees 20-some people who focus on risk analysis around cyber threats to critical infrastructure in the US.

“Essentially, I build methodology for people to think about really nasty problems from a risk perspective in a national security sphere,” he said. “I’ve worked on that for nuclear weapons, for deterrence, and now for cyber stuff.”

Reinhardt also spends time educating colleagues so individuals on either side of the tech/policy divide can talk to one another. And he’s engaging with Purdue University, where he earned his undergraduate degree in electrical engineering, through Sandia’s Academic Alliance, to help propose a new course, learning from those he observed at Stanford such as the one Crenshaw and Zegart taught.

When Reinhardt reflects on his time at CISAC, he says it didn’t convert him from a technical expert into a policy expert as much as it introduced him to their world and allowed him to be more effective working within it.

“Because of the fellowship, you’re going to understand how policy people think and you’re going to understand their world enough that you can actually talk to them,” Reinhardt said. “And hopefully, if you do your job right, they’ll start to understand the technical world so that they can talk to you.”

Picture of building
The Stanford Center at Peking University.

This is the first in an on-going series of profiles of CISAC pre- and post-doctoral fellows.