United States

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

Written by Jeff Tollefson

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.

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.

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.

Read more at Nature

About the author

Jeff Tollefson