The Three Wise Men Report and the origins of the NATO Science for Peace and Security Programme

  • 13 Dec. 2016 -
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  • Last updated: 13 Dec. 2016 14:33

On 13 December 1956, the North Atlantic Council endorsed a report to enhance non-military cooperation and coordination within NATO. Known as the Report of the Three Wise Men, it proposed concrete activities to enhance cooperation in the areas of politics, economics and science. One of the direct results of the Report was the creation of the NATO Science Programme. Sixty years later, the legacy of the Report lives on in the NATO Science for Peace and Security Programme.

“We think that you were wise before we asked you to undertake it. We think that you have wisely done the job and we think your wisdom will persist.” – these were the words of Mr. Selwyn Lloyd, UK Foreign Secretary at the December 1956 Council meeting which endorsed the Report of the Three Wise Men. They still hold sway today and are particularly true for NATO’s cooperation in the field of science and technology, which became institutionalised as a consequence of the recommendations made by the so-called Three Wise Men.

The Committee of Three was officially formed on 5 May 1956 to put flesh on the bones of Articles 2 and 4 of the Washington Treaty, which foresee collaboration and consultation among Allies. Three Ministers were therefore appointed to submit a report and advise the Council on ways and means to improve and extend NATO cooperation in non-military fields. The three ministers selected for the job were Lester B. Pearson, Foreign Minister of Canada, Gaetano Martino, Foreign Minister of Italy, and Halvard Lange, Foreign Minister of Norway. They soon became known as the Three Wise Men.

Enhancing scientific and technical cooperation

The issue of scientific and technical cooperation was on NATO’s agenda early in the preparations of the Report. A questionnaire that was to be filled out by every member nation to collect input on their positions regarding various proposals for non-military cooperation covered a broad range of subjects. It addressed political, economic and cultural aspects and also encompassed questions directed at scientific cooperation. There was also broad support for the idea of strengthening scientific cooperation among Allies. Some nations emphasised that cooperation in this area could help to “stimulate private initiative or to achieve paramount common objectives as, for instance, the preservation of the West’s scientific and technological superiority” and highlighted “the education of technicians, including the exchange of personnel and students” as a priority objective.

The discussions leading to the Report of the Three Wise Men also reflected Allied concerns in times of the Cold War extending to the scientific field. For instance, an explanatory note attached to the questionnaire stated that “Soviet leaders have invested substantial resources in a rapid development of their educational system to ensure the recruitment on a long-term basis of scientists, technicians and specialists”. It went on to propose that “it might be useful to consider if and how NATO might assist in finding ways and means to deal with it”. The questionnaire also sought Allied views on coordinating measures “to increase the recruitment and training on a long-term basis of scientists, technicians and specialists, bearing in mind the developments in these fields in communist countries.”

Overcoming political challenges

However, given the political climate and the difficult task at hand it was not self-evident that the Committee of Three would become a successful undertaking. Some NATO member states were concerned that their freedom to react to an emergency would be constrained if they were forced to consult with Allies on matters of foreign policy. Minister Martino himself was very open and frank about the challenges ahead. As an oral report by the Committee of Three notes: “Mr. Martino (Italy), speaking as Chairman of the Committee, said that the task before the Committee was a difficult one. Essentially, it was to ensure collaboration in the political and economic fields between 15 member governments, each of which had its own preoccupation and its own interest”.

Differences in national interests came to the fore a few months later: while the Three Wise Men drafted their report, the Suez crisis erupted, laying bare differences and conflicting positions among some Allies. On 29 October 1956, France and the United Kingdom together with Israel invaded Egypt to secure the Suez Canal, but did not give an advanced warning to other NATO Allies. A resolution was found to the Suez crisis eventually. However, it also demonstrated the need for enhanced coordination and served as a reminder of the importance of consultation to address differences among Allies.

The NATO SPS Programme - A legacy of the Three Wise Men Report

The final Report of the Three Wise Men included a dedicated subchapter on scientific and technological cooperation. It starts by laying out the “special importance” of science and technology for the Atlantic community and its implications for security and international affairs. The Three Wise Men identified an “urgent need” to enhance the quality and availability of qualified scientists, engineers and technicians. Progress in these areas was deemed imperative and “so crucial to the future of the Atlantic Community that NATO members should ensure that every possibility of fruitful cooperation is examined”.

The NATO Science Programme was launched in direct response to the Three Wise Men’s recommendations in 1957 and against the background of the launch of Sputnik I, which showed the gap between Soviet and Allied missile technology. The Programme was aimed at promoting scientific projects and collaboration among scientists from NATO countries to facilitate exchange and maximise the return on research investments. One year later, the NATO Science Committee was established to increase Allied scientific cooperation. 

Over the years, the Science Programme adapted to the changing political, security and strategic environment of the Alliance. Today, the NATO Science for Peace and Security (SPS) Programme is a unique partnership programme of NATO. It brings together scientists and experts from NATO and partner countries to address common security concerns through practical cooperation in the areas of civil science, technology and innovation.

The SPS Programme can look back at a long history of successful grantees and has supported the research of numerous Nobel Prize winners over the last decades. Most recently, Professor Aziz Sancar, a NATO Science Fellowship holder in the 1970s and a grantee of two NATO Collaborative Research Grants in 1986 and in 1990, received the 2015 Noble Prize in Chemistry for his ground-breaking research on DNA repair mechanisms. Lester Pearson, one of the Three Wise Men, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1957 for resolving the Suez crisis peacefully and “saving the world” as the Nobel Committee put it. He was the mastermind behind the idea of moving United Nations Emergency Forces into the Canal Zone, laying the ground stone for what would later become UN Peacekeeping Missions.

Previous Nobel Prize Winners

Nobel Prize for Physics

1989    Norman Ramsey (USA)

            First Science Committee Chairman 1958-59

1991    P.G. De Gennes (France), 1988 Director of a NATO Advanced Study Institute (ASI)

1997    Claude Cohen-Tannoudji (France)

            William D. Phillips (USA)

            NATO grantees in 1986 and 1994, respectively


Nobel Prize for Chemistry

1995    Paul Crutzen (Dutch), 1994 Workshop Director

1996    Harold Kroto (UK)

            Robert Curl (USA)

            Richard Smalley (USA)

            Various NATO grants between 1963 and 1987

1999    Ahmed Zewail (USA-Egypt), two NATO grants in the 1980s

2015    Aziz Sancar (Turkey-USA), NATO fellowship (1971-1973), two NATO Collaborative Research Grants (1986 and 1990)


Three Nobel Prize winners served as members of the former NATO Panel on Nanoscale Science, 1991-1996

1973    L. Esaki

1985    K. von Klitzing

1986    H. Rohrer


Eight Nobel Prize winners participated in a 1994 NATO workshop on discoveries in particle physics

1957    T-D. Lee

            C.N. Yang

1969    M. Gell-Mann

1976    S.C.C. Ting

1979    S.L. Glashow

            S. Weinberg

1988    M. Schwartz

1990    J.I. Friedman