During a press con­fer­ence fol­lowing the March 2014 Nuclear Secu­rity Summit in the Hague, Pres­i­dent Obama noted that his biggest secu­rity con­cern wasn’t Russia—or any other regional superpower—but rather “the prospect of a nuclear weapon going off in Manhattan.”

With that in mind, we must con­sider exactly how that sce­nario might tran­spire, said Stephen E. Flynn, co-​​director of Northeastern’s George J. Kostas Research Insti­tute for Home­land Secu­rity. “How would a nuclear weapon actu­ally get into Man­hattan?” asked Flynn, also the founding director of the Center for Resilience Studies and a pro­fessor of polit­ical sci­ence. “The most likely way in which it would poten­tially come to a major U.S. city is not on the tip of a mis­sile but in the belly of a ship,” he said, noting that his long-​​held posi­tion has been openly val­i­dated by the intel­li­gence community.

The reality is we do very little checking of what comes in on ships, yet we watch our air­space pretty closely,” he said. That hasn’t always been the case: During the early days of the cold war, before Russia had mis­siles or the means to fly to the U.S., the safety of the country’s ship­ping infra­struc­ture was one of the fed­eral government’s prime con­cerns. But today, Flynn said, the industry has become enor­mously vul­ner­able to smug­gling of contraband.

Flynn and an inter­dis­ci­pli­nary team of researchers—which also includes Sean Burke, Exec­u­tive Director of Northeastern’s Center for Resilience Studies, and Peter Boynton, co-​​director with Flynn of the Kostas Research Insti­tute for Home­land Security—are attempting to improve the resilience of the ship­ping industry and study ways to bol­ster private-​​sector counter-​​proliferation efforts in the global supply chain by facil­i­tating con­ver­sa­tions between industry, acad­emia, and gov­ern­ment. The two-​​year project, sup­ported with funding from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foun­da­tion, aligns with Northeastern’s focus on solving global chal­lenges in secu­rity, one of the university’s core research themes.

The grant is one of 10 the MacArthur Foun­da­tion announced ear­lier this year in an effort to help pre­vent nuclear ter­rorism and strengthen nuclear secu­rity around the globe.

It’s a tricky thing to do since these com­mu­ni­ties often don’t spend time working together in a col­lab­o­ra­tive way,” Flynn said of con­vening experts in three dif­ferent fields. “We think that we’ll be able to be helpful at North­eastern because we’re able to straddle these com­mu­ni­ties rea­son­ably well.”

Northeastern’s project will include broad-​​scale events in Sin­ga­pore and Seattle, home to two of the world’s largest port hubs. “We’ll be bringing in gov­ern­ment and industry players to ask what can be done to enhance the vis­i­bility and account­ability of what flows through this net­work and what can be done col­lab­o­ra­tively between the gov­ern­ment and industry capa­bil­i­ties,” Flynn explained.

In 2007, Con­gress passed a law requiring all over­seas cargo con­tainers to be inspected before they’re loaded on a U.S.-bound ship. But that law has never been enforced, Flynn said.

Should we have a secu­rity breach, I don’t think con­gress will repeal the law. Instead what they’ll likely—almost certainly—do is insist the law be enacted imme­di­ately,” he said. “So let’s think about how we address what con­gress was trying to do in a way that industry can live with versus hoping nothing ever hap­pens and this law never gets enforced.”

In this sense, Flynn said, industry should view the new col­lab­o­ra­tion as an oppor­tu­nity to help mold the future of this infra­struc­ture to ensure busi­ness con­ti­nuity instead of being forced by gov­ern­ment to make unre­al­istic changes.

He also noted that the majority of other resilience efforts should dupli­cate his team’s approach to solving prob­lems. Instead of let­ting research, stan­dards for­ma­tion, and policy changes unfold in a linear sequence over a 20-​​year period, con­vening all the stake­holders in one room allows for simul­ta­neous progress on mul­tiple fronts. That’s impor­tant, Flynn said, in part because “how you develop stan­dards can inform your research pri­or­i­ties and the eco­nomic incen­tives issue can inform what stan­dards are most rel­e­vant for the marketplace.”