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JASON chair Gerald F. Joyce.

Gerald F. Joyce, a professor in the departments of chemistry and cell and molecular biology at Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, CA, has been a member of the JASON group for 17 years, and currently serves as its chair.

Credit: Scripps Research Institute

JASON is a secretive group of U.S. academics advising the U.S. government on matters of defense, science, and technology. The majority of its members choose not to be identified, reflecting both the classified nature of their work, as well as a lasting sense of unease resulting from protests to their involvement in technology development for the U.S. during the Vietnam War.

The group’s roots can be traced to the Soviet Union’s 1957 launch of the Sputnik I satellite, which caught the U.S. off-guard and caused Americans concern that if the Soviets could launch satellites, they could also launch ballistic missiles carrying nuclear warheads. Early in 1958, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) established the Advanced Research Projects Agency, which considered how it could bring academics together to avoid any more such surprises, and made plans to set up an enclave in Washington and hire leading scientists. These plans were quashed on the grounds that academics would not want to give up their own leading-edge research. Instead, the organization pursued the idea of an annual six- or seven-week summer study program that would bring research scientists together to advise government.

The first such summer program was called Project SUNSHINE, a computer-generated name that did not sit well with scientists when key issues then under discussion included thermonuclear weapons. The wife of one of the scientists suggested the name JASON, which stuck.

JASON continued its summer studies unbeknownst to the public until its existence was disclosed in 1971 by The New York Times’ publication of extracts from the Pentagon Papers, which revealed the role of JASON in the Vietnam War and named some of its members. Vietnam War protesters demonstrated against JASON, and about half the group’s members quit.

Today, JASON remains reluctant to detail its work, but offers a high-level picture of its organization and activities. Gerald F. Joyce, JASON chair and professor in the departments of chemistry and cell and molecular biology at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, CA, explains, "We are a very tight group that is sensitive to our sponsors’ needs. Any sense of chat outside the group would end JASON, but that is not what the government wants, as it would lose the voice of experts. We are also very good at closing ranks if we are poked by the media."

Joyce explains that JASON members "study issues of national and international importance, and provide unvarnished advice to the U.S. government. We save the government huge amounts of money on ideas that won’t work, and help it change the way we do things."

Joyce, a biochemist, has been a JASON member for 17 years (just over the average term of JASON service, 16 years). He says the group operates as an independent organisation under its own charter and is supported by the non-profit MITRE Corp., a host organization contracted by DoD to provide technical and logistical support to JASON, as well as facilitating and coordinating contacts between JASON and its sponsors.

Projects undertaken by JASON are directed by sponsors within the U.S. government; most come from DoD and the Department of Energy (JASON members also can suggest project topics). Projects typically have some connection to national security.

JASON has about 50 members. Its early focus on nuclear weapons meant it was initially made up predominantly of physicists, but post-Vietnam, the group turned its attention to intelligence gathering, and has since widened its scope across scientific fields. Today, about 30% of the group are physicists, with the balance covering disciplines including computer science, communications, biology, biochemistry, mathematics, and astronomy. All are U.S. citizens with squeaky-clean résumés and top-secret security clearances.

JASON does not have a fixed budget; the government funds projects individually. The group takes on 12 to 15 studies annually, each of which typically require 130 days of JASON effort and access to classified government information.

Joyce explains that as chair of JASON, "I close discussions on what we will do in the summer on Feb. 1 each year, and send selected topics to members. Each project has a lead and co-lead, and members can decide which projects they want to work on and come to La Jolla, where we work from mid-June to the end of July whenever they like. We can’t cover every topic, so we sometimes call in additional experts from academia, industry, or government. We grill them, hear their points of view, and include them in studies for as long as we need them. We go on field trips, write code to analyze things, and make things; whatever it takes to complete projects and provide advice."

JASON members "arbitrage our ideas across many projects." Joyce says. Regarding a study of electronic health records sponsored by the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, he said "JASON was asked to do this project because it involves large datasets that must be fused together, but also (required consideration of) integrity, privacy, communications technologies, and more."

While this project is typical in its inclusion of many skills, it is atypical in that a report on the project will soon be released to the general public. The sponsors typically classify the majority of JASON reports, which usually run about 90 to 120 pages and are peer-reviewed.

The most recent unclassified JASON report listed on Wikipedia is focused on "Compressive Sensing for DoD Sensor Systems." A 2010 report focused on "Science of Cyber-Security."

Some websites list JASON project reports, but these include only unclassified material. There are also lists of current and former JASONs on the Internet, but these, says Joyce, are "all wrong."

Sarah Underwood is a technology writer based in Teddington, U.K.


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