Creating space for transformative conversations

Senior Dialogue Fellow Dr. Jennifer Simons Receives Honorary Doctor of Laws

June 10, 2015

During the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences convocation ceremony on Wednesday, June 10, 2015, Centre for Dialogue Director Shauna Sylvester presented Dr. Jennifer Simons with an honorary Doctor of Laws, honoris causa. Dr. Jennifer Simons is a Senior Dialogue Fellow with the Centre for Dialogue.

Shauna Sylvester Orator Citation

Madam Chancellor, rarely do we find an academic and philanthropist so actively and passionately engaged in making the world a safer place. I am honoured to present Dr. Jennifer Allen Simons - award winning nuclear disarmament expert, inspirational thought leader, educator, advocate for global peace, mother of four, Flamenco Dancer, and Martial Arts Blackbelt.

As founder and President of The Simons Foundation, Jennifer Simons has made it her life’s work to foster understanding of the barriers to peace and to work with non-governmental organizations, academic institutions, governments and multilateral agencies toward a common peace agenda. She is a widely respected convener and facilitator of major international conferences bringing together world leaders in strategic high-level policy dialogue.

As founding partner and principal sponsor of Global Zero, a non-partisan group of world leaders dedicated to achieving the elimination of nuclear weapons by 2030, as a Council Member of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, and as a leading sponsor and advisor to several UN peace and security publications and processes, Dr. Simons has demonstrated her global leadership in shaping and advancing our understanding of nuclear disarmament, peace, human rights and international law.

As an academic, she is an ardent believer in the capacity of education to effect positive change. She is the Founder and President of The Simons Foundation and established the Simons Centre for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation Research at the Liu Institute for Global Issues. She funds academic research on other issues of pressing concern to civil society, along with dozens of university programs and lectureships around the world. And she remains active academically, serving as Senior Fellow and Dialogue Associate at SFU’s Centre for Dialogue, Adjunct Professor in SFU’s School for International Studies, and Associate Member of SFU’s Institute for the Humanities. Among the many honours she has received, Dr. Simons was appointed to the Order of Canada in 2010 for her contributions to the promotion of peace and disarmament.

In addition to her work locally and globally in peace and security, Dr. Simons is a dancer and a patron of the arts. She recognizes the value and importance of the arts in keeping us human, in pushing the boundaries of social change and in giving us cultural anchors. 

We take great pride in recognizing this exceptional member of our community. Madam Chancellor, on behalf of the Senate of this University, I ask that you confer upon Dr. Jennifer Allen Simons the degree, Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.

Dr. Simons' Convocation Address

Thank you very much. Madam Chancellor, Mr. President, members of the platform party, graduating students, ladies and gentlemen, I’m deeply honoured to be here today to receive an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Simon Fraser University.

The University has been an integral part of my life for nearly 40 years. I earned my Masters and Doctoral qualifications at Simon Fraser; and served for six years on the Board of Governors where I played a part in the continuing development of the dynamic, highly regarded institution Simon Fraser University has become.

The University is close to my heart and I have followed its progress for the past 50 years of its existence as it has become recognized nationally and internationally as a school of high standing. And I take an immense pleasure in its continuing growth and its fine reputation.

My work for peace, disarmament, international law and human security is a continuing work in progress, and often times seemingly unsuccessful given the state of the world. So, I’m deeply appreciative of the honour Simon Fraser University has conferred on me for my contribution.

And fellow degree recipients who are graduating today, I congratulate you on your achievement and commend you for years of research and study you have undertaken. I hope that as you move on to the working world you utilize this learning and immerse yourselves in the day-to-day activities of living that you will continue to seek knowledge with an open mind and an open heart.

I made my career choice at Simon Fraser 35 years ago. Here on Burnaby Mountain, I decided to establish the Simons Foundation, an operational and granting organization with a mandate to work against the negative effects of technology, because I discovered that science and technological citizenship, that is ethics-based science, was not the subject of discussion or reflection in the University.

I was concerned about the absence of thought on the negative effects of science and technology; concerned because many scientific and technological developments are exceedingly inhumane and work against life, instead of for life.

For example, weapon development has changed the nature of war from predominantly military to military killing to killings, on an immense scale of civilians. In World War I, the civilian death toll was 5%. In World War II, the civilian death toll rose to 50%, with 100,000 killed in one night by the chemical weapon Napalm bombing of Tokyo; and some 200,000 civilians killed just by two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The Vietnam War civilian death toll rose to 90% with 400,000 killed by the chemical weapon, Agent Orange. And at present, in Vietnam, there are more than three million Agent Orange victims, including the children of the second and third generations.

In the recent Israeli-Gaza war, according to United Nations figures, the civilian death toll was 72%. And in Syria, the government issues chemical weapons and other indiscriminant weapons, cluster munitions and barrel bombs, killing its citizens. All these civilian deaths are euphemistically labelled “collateral damage”.

I chose nuclear disarmament as my specific area of focus because a contemporary nuclear weapon has a blast effect far greater than the atomic bombs used on Japan. An attack on a highly populated city with one nuclear weapon would kill one million out right and another million people would die within a week. My goal was to eliminate these devastating weapons of mass destruction, which I believe were, and still are, one of the greatest dangers faced by humanity.

The first grant from the Simons Foundation was to Simon Fraser University for a doctoral scholarship for a woman entering science.

There were no women on the faculty in Physics. I imagined that a woman physicist, pursuing research on radiation and atom, would be a Marie Curie, and use her knowledge of atomic Physics and radioactivity to alleviate suffering, rather than an Edmund Teller, the so called father of the Hydrogen Bomb, who used his knowledge to create immense capability with death and destruction.

I admit it was a sexist appointment and I acknowledge now that it is not an issue of man or woman. Rather, it is an issue in the domain of ethics and morality. Nuclear physicist and Noble Prize Recipient, Sir Joseph Rotblat, for example, concerned that Hitler was attempting to develop an atomic bomb, worked on a joint British and American Manhattan atom bomb project.

When he learned that the German efforts were failing, and was shocked to learn from the Manhattan Project Administrator that the bomb’s development would continue because the real purpose was to drop it on Japan, as a demonstration to the Soviet Union, Sir Joseph withdrew from the project, the only scientist to do so. From then on, he refused to work on weapons, and following Madam Curie, chose to apply himself to medical applications and nuclear physics of benefit to humanity.

Science and technology are double-sided. They always have a shadow side. The products of technology are not benign, not neutral, not outside morality. They are created, developed and used by human beings capable of distinguishing between right and wrong moral beings.

A former judge, and Vice President of the International Court of Justice, questions whether a scientist can shut his mind to the purposes for which his expertise required and reminds us that “the same rules of engineering that will construct a church, will construct a torture chamber.” Yet the view of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Director of Manhattan Atom Bomb Project is that “when you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it.”

Since the Enlightenment, when the great humane ideals of freedom, justice and equality co-existed in harmony with scientific thought, the understanding of human progress, to paraphrase Albert Schweitzer, has dwelled more and more on the results of science and less and less on the reflection of individual, society, humanity and civilization.

The triumphant rise of technology, beginning and during the Second World War, has transformed our world and is now beginning to threaten our survival. While there are many benefits; education, greater food availability, communications and particularly in medical science, technology has progressed to the extent where in many cases the dangers out-weigh the benefits. We’re experiencing dramatic changes to the balance of our climate and ecosystems.

At Cambridge University, theoretical physicist John D. Barrow warns of the “prospect that scientific cultures like our own inevitably contain within themselves the seeds of their own destruction [and] would be the end of us. Our instinctive desire for progress and discovery,” he says, “will stop us from reversing the tide in our fears.” Our democratic leanings will prevent us from regulating the activities of organizations. Our bias towards short term advantage, rather than ultra-long planning, will prevent us from staving off disasters. And in projecting “a future of increasing technological progress”, he continues, “we may face a future that is increasingly hazardous and susceptible to irreversible disaster.”

Our species is at risk of climate change caused by the massive exploitation of the earth’s natural resources, resulting in environmental degradation of the land, the oceans and the air; destruction of the rain forest, the overfishing of oceans, the loss of biodiversity and the disappearance of thousands of species.

We are at a critical juncture, engaged in the struggle to maintain a delicate balance between progress achieved through technology and the permanent destruction of this delicate balance. We see this struggle played out in microcosm around, and potentially beneath the ground of our University. Between exploiters of the fossil fuel industry, and those who understand that the proposed doubling of the pipeline, the transmission, storage and shipping of the tar sands product, not only posed contemporary environmental and health dangers, it is not only a “not in my backyard” protest, but also concerned for the long range prospects of our world. Continuing dependence on fossil fuels has catastrophic long term environmental and ecological consequences which endanger the lives of the present and future generations.

I do not want to dampen your pleasure on a day where we are honouring and celebrating your achievements, but we all do have a responsibility to act.

We, the graduates of Arts and Social Sciences and I too am a graduate of this faculty, are the carriers of the humanistic tradition, the carriers of the culture. Our knowledge and expertise is in human life, human engagement in the world, individual community, nationally and internationally. And our First Nations faculty and students come from a tradition of caretakers of the earth, as stewards of the planet.

As carriers of the humanity’s culture, our task as we make our way into the world is not only to remember our humanity, but also to encourage our friends, colleagues, employers, politicians and world leaders to remember their humanity; to consider the sacred balance between human life and our eco system and the necessity for the stewardship of the finite world which hosts us, in order that human beings can live on this earth forever.

We as graduates of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences have a special responsibility to be the guardians of humanity.

Only when human beings understand the degree of their responsibility, will our world be saved from all that threatens it today. So I urge you to keep these fundamental issues in your minds as you pursue your everyday lives, for your sake, for the sake of your children and for the sake of future generations.

I wish you every success in achieving your goals as you move forward in your lives.

Thank you very much.