Meet the Researcher: Paul Ingram

15 February 2022

Paul Ingram, Academic Programme Manager and Senior Research Associate

Paul has several decades experience leading diverse and multicultural teams to impact decisions on existential threats, particularly nuclear war. He was the Executive Director of the transatlantic British American Security Information Council (BASIC) 2007-19, focusing on nuclear deterrence and disarmament issues in the US, Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Since 2019 he has worked closely with the Swedish Foreign Ministry crafting the Stepping Stones Approach. The associated 16-nation Stockholm Initiative for Nuclear Disarmament has become a widely-acknowledged glimmer of hope for the NPT Review process. Paul studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford University, and then International Relations at Warwick and works on the A Science of Global Risk programme at CSER.

What is existential risk?

The worst existential threats come from us; our challenge is to eschew conflict and respond with creativity and collaboration as suggested by UN Secretary General Guterres at the 2021 General Assembly. This gives a renewed sense of collective purpose: to address and minimise global catastrophic risks. I have long admired CSER’s systemic approach, the intellectual rigour its world class reputation demands, and the talented, diverse, multidisciplinary space devoted to the big questions of our time.

It emerged in the late 1940s with the Cold War that humanity could destroy itself and life on earth. It appeared as if progress and life itself had shifted from certainty into probability, just as ideas of quantum physics and its uncertainty principle were rocking our understanding of the essence of reality. This wasn’t just about nuclear weapons… it was about understanding and managing better the systems and emerging technologies we use to relate to one another and the ecosystems upon which we depend. The varieties of seeds of that destructive capability were sewn many centuries earlier, and today we are still attempting to adjust and to develop the capacities to manage and reduce these threats, understanding that they cannot be entirely eliminated.

Can you tell us about your pathway to CSER?

Whilst teaching systems approaches at the Open University (1991-98) and later as part of the National School of Government’s flagship Top Management Programme (2007-12) I developed a fascination with the conceptual complexities associated with global challenges. We often see threats such as extreme climate change and breakdown of ecosystems, pandemics, strategic and regional conflicts, or economic instabilities as competing for our attention, when the real challenge is how we manage their interaction through a collaborative whole systems approach.

I believe passionately in collaboration, the core of my current work. Whilst our evolutionary response to threat is ‘fight or flight’, played out in international relations, our future survival demands more collaborative responses. We need to draw diverse people quickly from fear and despair into a curious and open exploration of our relationship to one another and the systems upon which we depend. Crucially, this is not so much about asserting control as finding constructive accommodation, and improving our collective understanding of risk and our relationship to it, whatever our position in society.

My principal focus over my career has been on finding ways to promote nuclear disarmament. Since 2019 I have worked closely with the Swedish Foreign Ministers Margot Lindström and Ann Linde and their disarmament team crafting the Stepping Stones Approach. The associated Stockholm Initiative for Nuclear Disarmament, with Germany, Japan and 14 other states, is a glimmer of hope for the NPT Review Conference now scheduled for August 2022. This initiative is unique for drawing Foreign Ministers to regular meetings (four in person so far) to raise the profile of nuclear risks and the need for practical action on the disarmament agenda.

Until 2019 I led the transatlantic British American Security Information Council (BASIC) for 12 years, focused on nuclear deterrence and disarmament issues in the US, Europe, the Middle East and Asia. This involved innovative approaches, working alongside officials, academics, celebrities, students and interns, always with a bridge-building emphasis on developing a learning organisation at the heart of informal networks, with an expanded funding base.

Keen to build bridges and encourage a pluralist approach, I have worked with governments highly suspicious of western influences. When hosting my weekly TV talk show (2007-12) I connected with the highest levels of Ahmadinejad’s Iranian government and helped facilitate back-channel negotiations which contributed to the nuclear deal. At the same time, I have led several projects funded by the UK Foreign Office. Also in the UK, I set up and ran the Trident Commission (2011-14), co-chaired by Des Browne, Malcolm Rifkind and Menzies Campbell; Martin Rees of CSER was also a member, alongside former top diplomats and a chief of defence staff. The Commission and our report helped shift a polarised and parochial debate towards a shared exploration of the role of nuclear weapons.

I began as a teenage anti-nuclear campaigner in the early 1980s. I viscerally experienced a personal relationship with the threat of nuclear war. My interest in the cultural, philosophical and political nature of risk and risk management was stimulated when studying Philosophy, Politics and Economics, and then International Relations.

I used electoral Green politics to trigger awareness of the big issues amongst students in Oxford. I was elected the first Green Vice-President in the university student union in 1988 and went on to represent Central Ward (the university) on Oxford City Council 1996-2002. I was co-Leader of a Green/LibDem City Council, the UK Greens’ first taste of political power. These roles involved adaptive practical strategy, communications, project and personnel management.

After moving to London I helped Guy Hughes set up Crisis Action, serving as his Chair of the Board for the first turbulent four years. I managed the organisation in transition after Guy’s untimely death in 2006. Crisis Action grew rapidly and is now an award-winning network with hundreds of partners and nine offices on four continents protecting civilians from the ravages of conflict.

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