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US nuclear-weapons agency offers lifeline to elite science-advisory group

The National Nuclear Security Administration has proposed funding the storied panel known as JASON until early 2020.

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The US Department of Energy headquarters in Washington, DC.

The Department of Energy oversees the National Nuclear Security Administration, which manage the US nuclear-weapons stockpile.Credit: B Christopher/Alamy

The elite advisory panel known as JASON, which has provided scientific and technical advice to the US government for decades, has been given a reprieve — days before it was set to shut down.

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a branch of the energy department that manages nuclear weapons, has offered to fund the group’s work until January 2020.

JASON’s future came into question last month when the Department of Defense abruptly decided not to renew its contract with the MITRE Corporation, a non-profit consultancy in McLean, Virginia, that manages the contract on JASON’s behalf. The decision effectively cancelled the independent panel’s projects for other government agencies, because JASON’s government work was funnelled through its defence-department contract.

That sent JASON officials scrambling to find a new sponsor. On 25 April, just days before the group held what would have been its last meeting in Washington DC, the NNSA posted a contract that would allow MITRE to continue managing JASON’s work.

Richard Garwin, a physicist and senior JASON adviser, called the NNSA’s decision “a most welcome development” and said that it would allow the group to continue its work with government agencies.

JASON was founded by physicists in 1960. It now includes specialists from a variety of academic fields. The group has tackled a wide range of subjects, from classified questions about national defence to health care and artificial intelligence.

The NNSA had extra impetus to step up: Congress approved legislation last year that requires the agency to work with the Jasons on a study of the longevity of plutonium pits — the core of nuclear weapons. The results could inform government efforts to build new pits over the coming decades.

In a statement, the NNSA said JASON has provided significant contributions to its mission of maintaining the nuclear stockpile and preventing nuclear proliferation. “NNSA cannot afford a contractual gap in the services MITRE provides,” the statement said.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-01383-4

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