Examining the capabilities of the U.S. nuclear arsenal is a perennial topic for the Jason.

U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Ronald Gutridge

Update: Legislator asks Pentagon to restore contract for storied Jason science advisory group

*Update, 11 April, 3:30 p.m.: The legislator who revealed the Pentagon’s decision to terminate the Jason contract during a congressional hearing earlier this week today urged acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan to reverse that decision. Here’s a statement from Representative Jim Cooper (D–TN), who chairs the strategic forces subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee.

The abrupt, unilateral decision to not renew the long-standing JASON contract damages our national security by depriving not only the Pentagon, but also other national security agencies, of sober and sound advice in confronting some of the nation's most complex threats.  Acting Secretary Shanahan should reconsider his decision.

For more than half a century, the Nation's elite scientists and technologists, through JASON studies, have provided the executive branch and Congress with sound, independent expert advice on the most important and consequential technical issues facing our nation. Members of Congress have long counted on their nonpartisan, science-based advice to inform our decisions on a range of national security issues facing our nation, such as nuclear weapons, space, and emerging technologies.

Here’s our original story from 9 April:

The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) has severed its 60-year ties to a group of academics known as Jason, putting in jeopardy the group’s ability to conduct studies for the government on a range of national security issues.

Jason, formed during the early years of the Cold War to provide the U.S. military with independent technical expertise, consists of some 50 scientists who spend part of their summer chewing over such knotty problems as maintaining the viability of the nation’s nuclear stockpile and the technical aspects of proposed weapons systems. Over the decades, other organizations have developed similar capabilities. But Jason has maintained its reputation for providing blunt and balanced advice to policymakers.

However, DOD officials have apparently had a change of heart. On 28 March, the MITRE Corporation, a nonprofit based in Mclean, Virginia, that manages the Jason contract, received a letter from DOD ordering it to close up shop by 30 April.

Representative Jim Cooper (D–TN) broke the news this afternoon during a hearing he was chairing in which he questioned the head of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) in Washington, D.C., about the agency’s 2020 budget request. It was a tense exchange.

“Are you aware that the [Jason] contract has been summarily terminated by the Pentagon?” Cooper asked NNSA’s Lisa Gordon-Hagerty. “It’s my understanding that the Pentagon is doing something with the contract,” Gordon-Hagerty replied.

“Is that a euphemism for termination?” Cooper persisted. Gordon sidestepped the question, noting that Jason was currently conducting some studies for NNSA and adding that, “if there are some issues with contract management, we need to make sure that somebody handles them.”

Cooper could not be reached for comment after the hearing. But his questioning elicited praise for the group from Gordon-Hagerty. 

“I can’t speak to their long history,” she told Cooper. “But I can tell you that their technical expertise is sound … and that they are very knowledgeable about the issues associated with NNSA programs.”

Individual Jason members declined to comment on the status of the organization. And officially, it’s still business as usual.

“We are planning our annual spring meeting, which takes place later this month,” says its chair, Russell Hemley, a professor of physics and chemistry at the University of Illinois in Chicago. “We are finalizing our annual summer study, which includes its usual distribution of technical topics from different agencies in the federal government.”

This is the second time the Pentagon has tried to cut its ties to Jason. In 2002, Tony Tether, director of its Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, pulled Jason’s contract after the group rejected his attempt to add three members. But several months later Jason struck a deal with another DOD entity and stayed in business.

That unit, now led by Michael Griffin, the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, is believed to be the driving force behind last month’s decision.