If there is one thing that President Donald Trump’s administration sorely needs, it is rational, independent science-based advice on crucial issues. Which is why it was so concerning when the US Department of Defense (DOD) abruptly decided in March to end its long relationship with a science-advisory panel known as JASON.
For nearly 60 years, the scientists on the panel — the Jasons — have provided the US government with unvarnished, independent advice on matters ranging from classified military developments and nuclear weapons to artificial intelligence and global warming. Its members are a roll call of elite and illustrious scientists. The Pentagon said its decision was economic: it was cancelling all but one study, on electronic warfare, and it made no financial sense to renew the full contract.
This decision would have effectively ended the group’s work — but then, on 25 April, it received a last-minute reprieve. The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) — a branch of the energy department that maintains the country’s nuclear-weapons arsenal — offered new funding for the Jasons. This summer, the group will now be able to hammer out around a dozen studies for federal agencies, including the NNSA. But the new contract runs only until 31 January 2020; previous DOD contracts lasted for five years.
The NNSA says it will explore longer-term funding. That’s important: lurching from one short-term contract to the next is no way to run an advisory group essential for navigating some of the most delicate, complex and long-standing national issues. And this isn’t the first scare: in 2002, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency controversially walked away from supporting the group, only to have a different branch of the defence department step in.
The latest decision sadly reflects the blasé attitude of the Trump administration towards science advice. The Environmental Protection Agency, in particular, has disbanded, overhauled and stacked the decks on several science advisory panels since Trump took office, and the appointment of a national science adviser took much too long. In legislation passed last year, Congress required the NNSA to work with the Jasons on research into the longevity of the plutonium pits at the core of thermonuclear weapons. The question of how long these pits last is hotly debated and crucial, because the NNSA is planning to restart a costly pit-manufacturing programme over the coming decade. But only the Jasons have the security clearance needed to provide a detailed assessment.
That’s one of the many compelling reasons why the US government must provide reliable, long-term support to ensure that the Jasons can do their job.
Nature 569, 159 (2019)