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After Pentagon Ends Contract, Top-Secret Scientists Group Vows To Carry On

Apr 25, 2019
Originally published on April 25, 2019 7:22 pm

Updated at 5:30 p.m. ET

A secretive group of scientists who advise the U.S. government on everything from spy satellites to nuclear weapons is scrambling to find a sponsor after the Defense Department abruptly ended its contract late last month.

The group, known as the Jasons, will run out of money at the end of April. The Pentagon says that the group's advice is no longer needed, but independent experts say it has never been more relevant and worry the department is throwing away a valuable resource.

Russell Hemley, the head of the Jasons, says that other government agencies still want advice and that the Jasons are determined to give it.

Late Thursday, it appeared that another government agency might be willing to take on the group. The Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration posted a solicitation saying it intends to take over the contract for the group. That could happen in a matter of months, and it is unclear how the Mitre Corp., which manages the Jasons, would fund the group in the interim.

The Jasons group comprises about 60 members. By day, they're normal academics, working at colleges and universities and in private industry. But each summer, they come together to study tough problems for the military, intelligence agencies and other parts of the government.

The group's name, like the group itself, is shrouded in mystery, though it's believed to be a reference to Jason, the Greek mythological prince who leads the Argonauts in looking for the Golden Fleece.

"The idea that they're going to cut back on the kind of advice that the Jasons provide is not good for the Department of Defense," says Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists, an independent watchdog group. "It's not good for the nation."

"We're very independent, we have this diversity of talent and we often come up with very different, very original perspectives and solutions to problems," says Hemley, a physicist and chemist at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Hemley is one of the few members who publicly identify themselves as part of the group. He says the Jasons are unlike anything else out there — academics at the top of their individual fields, with security clearances that let them work on any problem.

The group's origins go back to the early days of the Cold War.

"They just formed themselves, back in 1960," says Ann Finkbeiner, who wrote The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite. It began when a group of physicists won funding from the Pentagon to spend the summer learning about the problems facing the Defense Department in its fight against the Soviet Union. These stubborn researchers were determined to advise the government. They went on to study everything from anti-submarine warfare to missile defense.

Russell Hemley is the chair of the Jasons. He says several government agencies remain interested in contracting with the group.
Geoff Brumfiel / NPR

"Probably their most famous study was about trying to stop the infiltration from North Vietnam into the South," Finkbeiner says.

The problem was that North Vietnamese troops and supplies were hard to find beneath the dense jungle canopy. The Jasons' solution was to develop a system of remote sensors that could be airdropped into the jungle and provide intelligence on the enemy. The program, like much to do with Vietnam, was controversial and didn't work perfectly. But it laid the groundwork for modern electronic warfare, in which sensors provide troops with detailed battlefield information, Finkbeiner says.

In recent years, Hemley says, the Jasons have broadened the areas they study. They've tried to help the Department of Agriculture develop better ways to use data to understand crop production, for example. And they advised the Census Bureau on how to streamline its operations.

So it came as a surprise to Hemley and others when, in late March, the Pentagon abruptly announced it was ending its primary contract with the Jasons. The contract, run through the Mitre Corp., is the vehicle that allows the Jasons to do work with other parts of the government as well. Without it, the group has no way of getting the several million dollars in funding it needs to operate annually.

"The department remains committed to seeking independent technical advice and review," Pentagon spokesperson Heather Babb said. But Aftergood sees another reason for the end of the relationship. He says that the Jasons are a blunt bunch. If they think an idea is dumb or won't work, they aren't afraid to say so.

"They were offering the opposite of cheerleading," he says. "And DOD decided that maybe they didn't want to pay for that any longer."

Aftergood says it's a real mistake to cut ties with the Jasons now. The Pentagon is embarking on ambitious research into artificial intelligence, quantum computing and advanced hypersonic missiles. The Jasons have expertise on these topics and will likely be useful.

For now, Hemley says, the group is eager to continue its research and is "working closely with our sponsors to make sure that happens."

The National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees the nation's nuclear weapons, would be a natural fit for the group. Over the years, it has solicited numerous studies from the Jasons on the nuclear stockpile.

At a congressional hearing this month, NNSA Administrator Lisa Gordon-Hagerty voiced her support for the Jasons: "I can tell you that they are rich in history," she said, "and their technical expertise is sound."

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

For decades, the Pentagon has turned to a mysterious group of scientists for advice known as the Jasons. They've studied everything from spy satellites to the nation's nuclear weapons. Now the Department of Defense is ending its relationship with the Jasons. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel looks into why.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: There are about 60 members of the Jasons. By day, they're normal academics working at colleges and universities, but each summer they come together to study really tough problems for the military, intelligence agencies and other parts of the government. They're a bit like Q...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GOLDFINGER")

DESMOND LLEWELYN: (As Q) We've installed some rather interesting modifications.

BRUMFIEL: ...The top-secret scientist who invents new gadgets to help James Bond.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GOLDFINGER")

LLEWELYN: (As Q) Smokescreen, oil slick, real bulletproof screen.

RUSSELL HEMLEY: Q - no, I don't think of that (laughter).

BRUMFIEL: That's Russell Hemley, a physicist at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Hemley is the chair of the Jasons and one of the few members who publicly identifies himself as part of the group. He says the Jasons are unlike anything else out there - academics at the top of their individual fields with security clearances that let them work on any problem.

HEMLEY: We're very independent. We have this diversity of talent. And we often come up with very different, very original perspectives and solutions to problems.

BRUMFIEL: The Jasons go back to the early days of the Cold War.

ANN FINKBEINER: They just formed themselves back in 1960.

BRUMFIEL: Ann Finkbeiner is author of a book called "The Jasons." These stubborn researchers were determined to advise the government whether the government wanted it or not.

FINKBEINER: Probably their most famous study was about trying to stop the infiltration from North Vietnam into the South.

BRUMFIEL: The problem as laid out in this 1969 Pentagon film was that North Vietnamese troops and supplies were hard to find.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The dense jungle canopy overhead, the complex network of roads, trails and footpaths make the detection of this infiltrating traffic difficult.

BRUMFIEL: The Jasons' solution was to develop a system of remote sensors that could be airdropped into the jungle and provide intelligence on the enemy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: All sensor signals are directed to a digital data computer.

BRUMFIEL: The program, like much to do with Vietnam, was controversial, and it didn't work perfectly. But it laid the groundwork for modern electronic warfare where sensors provide troops with detailed battlefield information. Jasons have worked on other tough problems like missile defense and submarine communications.

Then in late March, the Pentagon abruptly announced it was ending its contract with the Jasons. In a statement, it said the move made, quote, "economic sense." But Steven Aftergood isn't buying that argument. Aftergood is with the Independent Federation of American Scientists and has spent years watching the Jasons work. He says that the Jasons are a blunt bunch. If they think an idea is dumb or won't work, they aren't afraid to say it.

STEVEN AFTERGOOD: They were offering the opposite of cheerleading, and DOD maybe decided it did not want to pay for that any longer.

BRUMFIEL: But Aftergood says it's a real mistake to cut ties with the Jasons now. The Pentagon is embarking on ambitious research into artificial intelligence, quantum computing, advanced missiles, things that the Jasons know a lot about.

AFTERGOOD: The idea that they're going to cut back on the kind of advice that the Jasons provide is not good for the Department of Defense; it's not good for the nation.

BRUMFIEL: Late Thursday, another agency, the Department of Energy, signaled its willingness to support the Jasons. One way or another, he believes their work will continue. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.