| by Jason Warburg

News Stories, People

Philipp Bleek presenting
Professor Philipp Bleek speaks at CBRNe Convergence—a chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and improvised explosive threat and response practitioner conference—in November 2019 in Nashville, Tennessee.

Middlebury Institute professor Philipp Bleek has been appointed to serve as an expert on a U.S. National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine study titled “Assessing and Improving Strategies for Preventing, Countering, and Responding to Weapons of Mass Destruction Terrorism.”

Professor Bleek, a member of the faculty of the MA in Nonproliferation and Terrorism Studies degree program since 2011, will serve on a subgroup of the study focused on chemical threats. Studies sponsored by the National Academies are designed to convene top experts in the nation on important current policy issues. “This particular study is a congressionally mandated, yearlong, three-pronged effort looking at WMD (weapons of mass destruction) terrorism,” explains Bleek. “The end result is a report in which we look at each type of threat and at current responses to it, in particular identifying gaps in current responses.”

At the Institute, Bleek teaches a popular seminar on chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) terrorism, and both CBRN terrorism in general and chemical terrorism in particular have been a significant focus of both his academic and policy work. In 2012–13 he took a leave to serve as senior advisor in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs, an assignment that saw him help draft the National Defense Strategy for Countering WMD, the Department of Defense’s highest-level policy document on this topic.

“I really like CBRN terrorism as a topic,” says Bleek. “One thing I tell my students is that smart, well-informed people often differ dramatically about this topic, because it involves projecting futures that might be very different from what we’ve seen in the past. There are people who think the threat is wildly overblown, and people who genuinely lose sleep over it, and then a whole spectrum in between. I find that fascinating; I love the conceptual nature of projecting futures that might look very different and trying to be analytically rigorous about that.”

One of the highlights of my time at MIIS has been the opportunity to work with a number of students on research projects that have led to significant coauthored professional publications.
— Professor Philipp Bleek

Bleek views the study as “an extraordinary opportunity” to be part of a conversation with some of the nation’s leading experts on WMD terrorism and expects the project to inform both his teaching and his research in the future. He has also applied for funding from the Institute to hire a graduate research assistant to support his work on the study. “One of the highlights of my time at MIIS has been the opportunity to work with a number of students on research projects that have led to significant coauthored professional publications.”

“Dr. Bleek invests in students,” says his former graduate research assistant Cyrus Jabbari MANPTS ’20, now an analyst serving in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering. “I was thrilled to have the opportunity to collaborate with him to publish and brief on topics that had largely gone unnoticed in the CBRN world, such as microfluidics technology, acid attacks, and a possible Iranian biological weapons program. These opportunities allowed me to grow my network in the field, pursue multiple assistantships, internships, fellowships, and consultancies, and eventually land my dream job at the Pentagon.”

Policy Engagement Is Valued alongside Academic Engagement

The mission of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine is to “provide independent, objective advice to inform policy with evidence, spark progress and innovation, and confront challenging issues for the benefit of society.” The academies regularly organize studies that bring together leading experts on a particular topic. Professor William Potter, founding director of the Institute’s James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS), has been appointed to several studies.

On the Institute campus, Professor Bleek is affiliated with both CNS and the Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism, and leads the Cyber Collaborative. As the 2021 winner of the Institute’s annual Excellence in Teaching Award, he was the featured faculty speaker at winter Commencement last December.

“MIIS is a place where policy engagement is valued as much as traditional academic engagement,” says Bleek, “and that’s fantastic both for me and for my students.”