THE LAUNCH of Sputnik by the Soviet Union on Oct. 4, 1957, sent shockwaves through the United States, not the least of which was a fear of being overshadowed in science and technology. Physicists rose to the Cold War challenge. In 1960, a small group of them formed an independent organization, known as the Jasons, to help the U.S. government solve its most vexing technological problems. For more than six decades, the Jasons have labored every summer to tackle mind-bending challenges. Now, their future is in doubt.
On March 28, the Defense Department notified the MITRE Corp. that an expiring five-year contract for the Jasons would not be renewed because the “requirement has changed.” Only one study, on electronic warfare, is to be completed. Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), chairman of the strategic forces subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, revealed the decision at a hearing on April 9, and it was confirmed by Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists, as well as reports in Science and Nature . Mr. Cooper has asked the Pentagon to reconsider — and we agree.
If not reversed, the decision could effectively end a long and fruitful collaboration of the best and brightest scientists with the U.S. government. The candid advice of the Jasons, widely respected, has not always led to easy choices for policymakers, grappling with limited resources and political interests. The word of the Jasons may not be sitting well with an ideological administration like this one, so often at odds with scientists on climate change and other topics.
According to Nature, there are currently about 40 members of the Jasons, stellar academics with top-secret clearances, who spend the summer at La Jolla, Calif., working on 12 to 15 studies a year at a cost of $7 million to $8 million, including for the military, the intelligence agencies and the departments of Energy and Homeland Security. Ann Finkbeiner, author of “The Jasons: The Secret History of Science’s Postwar Elite,” a book about the group, documented their early work on thorny problems arising from the nuclear weapons age, such as the test ban and questions about defense against ballistic missiles. In later years, the Jasons broadened out; by the end of the 1980s, members included computer scientists, astronomers, geoscientists, mathematicians, materials scientists, engineers and oceanographers. The 1990s brought more attention to biology and cybersecurity. Many of the group’s studies are classified, but some are public. Ms. Finkbeiner says the name Jasons was conferred by Mildred Goldberger, wife of founding member Murph Goldberger, after the Greek myth, because she thought of the advisers as golden heroes.
Today’s technology enigmas are no less daunting than those of the 1960s: climate change, antibiotic resistance, cybersecurity, genetic engineering, privacy and more. It is wrong-headed to jettison a braintrust like the Jasons. The scientists serve out of a sense of duty to the nation. The United States imprudently abolished the Office of Technology Assessment two decades ago. It shouldn’t make a similar mistake now.