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US researchers alarmed as government cuts ties with elite science advisory group

JASON panel’s work is in jeopardy as Department of Defense declines to renew contract.

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The Pentagon building in Washington, DC

The US Department of Defense had supported the independent JASON advisory group since the early 1960s.Credit: AFP/Getty

The US Department of Defense has ended a longstanding relationship with JASON, an independent group that has provided the federal government with unvarnished technical advice on nuclear weapons and other issues since the height of the Cold War.

The department abruptly announced that it would not renew its five-year contract with the group in a 28 March letter to the MITRE Corporation, a non-profit consultancy in McLean, Virginia, that manages the contract. News of the decision came to light on 9 April during a hearing organized by the House of Representatives’ Armed Services Committee.

The decision in effect terminates JASON’s projects with other government agencies, such as the Department of Energy (DOE). That's because the group’s work for the government is funnelled through its contract with the defence department, says Richard Garwin, physicist and senior JASON adviser who once led the group.

Nature explores what the government’s decision means for JASON and the federal agencies and private organizations that rely on its work.

What is JASON?

JASON is a group of around 40 independent experts that advises the US government on thorny technical questions involving national defence and other matters. The group formed in 1960 to help the US government counter the growing threat of the Soviet Union, which had beaten the United States into space three years earlier with the launch of Sputnik.

Each year, members — known as “Jasons” — hole up in La Jolla, California, for two months to hammer out reports on topics requested by its government sponsors. The group typically produces 12 to 15 studies a year, at a total cost of US$7 million to $8 million.

Much of JASON’s work focuses on national security, often delving into classified issues. The group also weighs in on a range of other questions, including the role of artificial intelligence in health care, the design of the United States’ national census and the risk that space storms pose to the electrical grid.

Who are its members?

Physicists founded JASON, and its earliest members included pioneers of the US nuclear weapons programme. But the group has evolved to include eminent academics from other fields, including chemistry, oceanography and biology.

The group’s ranks have included several Nobel prizewinners and dozens of members of the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. JASON recruits its members through a private process.

Can I read their reports?

Many JASON reports that focus on military matters, such as nuclear weapons, are classified — although the group often produces unclassified summaries in such cases.

Other reports have tackled a range of unclassified topics such as public health, fusion energy and global warming. The Federation of American Scientists maintains a partial list of JASON reports.

What prompted the defence department’s decision?

In its recent letter to Mitre, the defence department said that it would commission only one JASON study this year, on electronic warfare, and that it was cancelling several others. In light of this, the department said, it made more economic sense to issue a contract for that single study instead of renewing its broad, long-term contract with the group. The letter did not mention that this would in effect terminate JASON’s planned work for other agencies.

One notable project now under threat is a report that would have examined how long the plutonium pits at the core of modern nuclear weapons will last. In September, Congress approved legislation that requires the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) — the DOE’s nuclear-weapons branch — to commission a JASON study on the topic. The information could inform the NNSA’s plans to restart the manufacture of plutonium pits over the next decade.

Has anything like this happened before?

Yes, in 2002. An apparent dispute with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a research arm of the defence department that used to manage the government’s primary contract with JASON, led to a rupture with the group. After an outcry from scientists and Congress, JASON signed a contract with a different branch of the defence department — which had renewed it until now.

How are scientists reacting to the news?

Many scientists are surprised and concerned. The Jasons might fly under the public radar, but their influence goes beyond the federal government. JASON also informs the work of watchdog groups that monitor the US nuclear-weapons programme and other government activities.

“I’m appalled,” says Lisbeth Gronlund, co-director of the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “Their work on issues related to our nuclear weapons is just really invaluable.”

Raymond Jeanloz, an Earth and planetary scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, who has worked with JASON, says the group is useful because it provides hard-nosed technical advice without delving into controversial policy questions. He says that its reports on how the United States can maintain its nuclear-weapons arsenal without testing have proved to be particularly valuable since the Cold War ended.

“If this contract termination is the end of the matter, I suspect there will be a lot more public ruckus,” says Jeanloz, who also chairs the US National Academy of Sciences’ committee on international security and arms control.

What now?

It’s unclear. JASON’s contract with the defence department expired on 31 March, but some money remains for a spring planning meeting scheduled to take place later this month. The fate of studies in the planning stage for this summer is uncertain, however.

Garwin says that discussions are under way about how to resolve the matter. One possibility is that the defence department will revise its position and allow for some kind of a transition that would allow the work for other agencies to continue. “It’s an urgent problem,” Garwin says. “People are scrambling to understand what can be done.”

Heather Babb, a spokesperson for the defence department, said in a statement that the department “has not terminated its contract with the MITRE Corporation for JASON studies”. That statement is technically correct, but misleading: the department allowed its existing contract to lapse while cancelling the solicitation for a new one, thus terminating its longstanding relationship with Mitre and the JASON group.

A spokesperson for MITRE said that “as instructed by the [defence department] letter MITRE is ceasing our support to the JASON program”.

JASON's current leader, Russell Hemley, a materials chemist at the University of Illinois in Chicago, declined to comment on the group’s efforts to work out a solution.

Updates & Corrections

  • Correction 11 April 2019: This story incorrectly listed Russell Hemsley's affiliation as George Washington University. He is at the University of Illinois in Chicago.

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