The Pentagon is increasing its funding request for research and engineering this year.

The Pentagon is increasing its funding request for research and engineering this year. U.S. Army Research Laboratory

The Pentagon Is Killing a Key Independent-Research Program

For decades, JASON studies helped DOD and other agencies get outside perspectives on scientific and technical topics.

Since 1959, a little-known program named for a mythical Greek hero has allowed the Defense Department and other agencies to commission independent academics to do a wide variety of scientific and technical studies. Work produced under this JASON program has often had a quiet-yet-outsized impact: in 1995, for example, one such study showed that the Pentagon could maintain an effective nuclear stockpile even under the proposed Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty — a conclusion that helped the treaty become reality.

But now Pentagon officials are killing JASON in all but name. Last month, they sent the bad news to MITRE, the nonprofit corporation that runs the program.

“Washington Headquarters Services, Acquisition Directorate (WHS/AD) is canceling the solicitation number HQ0034-19-R-0011 for JASON National Security Research Studies,” reads a March 28 letter first obtained by Science magazine. “The requirement has changed from multiple studies being projected to only one study being needed for the Under Secretary of Defense, Research and Engineering (OUSD(R&E)). Because we only have a need for one study to complete, issuing a new Indefinite Delivery/Indefinite Quantity (IDIQ) contract vehicle does not make economic sense at this time.”

The IDIQ structure allowed the Pentagon to commission multiple studies through JASON. It also allowed other agencies, such as the Department of Homeland Security, to order and fund about 15 studies a year. The commissioning agency or department ultimately owns the final product, and many JASON panel reports are classified. But many, ranging from Artificial Intelligence for Health and Health Care, to census studies, are released to the public; Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists has put together a list.

The letter left some confusion as to what is going on with the contract. At a House Armed Services Committee Hearing on Tuesday, Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tennessee, asked National Nuclear Security Administration Administrator Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, “Were you aware that their contract has been summarily terminated?”

Gordon-Hagerty answered that she knew that “something was going on” with the contract. NNSA is currently trying to commission two JASON reports. That effort is now in limbo.

Twitter reacted to the news quickly. Stephen Young, a senior Analyst and Washington Representative at the Global Security Program of the Union of Concerned Scientists, tweeted “Just confirmed by Hill staff: Pentagon has terminated the contract of JASON, the independent science advisory group that Congress & the public rely on for assessment of many technical issues. This is a travesty & will lead to more ill-informed, bad government.”

Defense One reached out to a spokesperson for the Defense Department Undersecretary of Research and Engineering, which oversees the JASON program. “The Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering has not terminated its contract with the MITRE Corporation for JASON studies” DOD spokeswoman Heather Babb said in an email. She later clarified  “There is currently an active Program Management Task Order with MITRE, which provides oversight and operations of all studies and meetings.  That Task Order is currently set to expire on April 30, 2019. After the expiration of the Program Management Task Order, there will be no active OUSD(R&E) sponsored contractual vehicles with MITRE for the JASONs program.”

They don’t have to “terminate” the contract to kill the program, since it was set to expire at the end of March. By changing the contract from IDIQ to a single contract, other agencies will no longer be able to commission studies, essentially killing the program without  technically terminating it.

“The problem with one study is that JASON is set up to provide 10 to 15 studies per year. It's not possible to run the JASON program" with just one study, said one person directly familiar with the program.

MITRE responded to a request for comment with this statement: “MITRE received a letter dated March 28 from the Department of Defense that terminated plans for a follow-on JASON contract, and as instructed by the letter MITRE is ceasing our support of the JASON program.”

The change is occurring as the Pentagon requests $9 billion more for its research and engineering budget than it did last year (bringing the total ask in the recent budget request up to $104 billion.) Bottom line: the Pentagon is spending more on new science and tech initiatives but will be spending less on independent academic research into how those initiatives will fare.