In Greek mythology, the god Jason went from leader of the Argonauts to getting killed in his sleep when the stern of his ship fell on top of him.
He never saw it coming.
And now here we are: Jason, the independent group of scientists that has advised the Pentagon for about six decades on matters of science and technology, apparently lost its contract with the Department of Defense. The news was first reported by Science magazine on April 9.
For context, Jason was created to draw younger, scientific minds to government work, is credited for contributing to the Vietnam War strategy, and has provided input on nuclear weapons development, missile defense, and more recently sensors, cybersecurity and artificial intelligence, just to name a handful of efforts. There’s a bit of a fabled existence to the group, you might say — about half of its work is classified, members are dubbed “Jasons” and they’re recruited exclusively by current members.
The decision to cancel the contract, which was apparently a five-year indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity contract with the Office of the Secretary of Defense, has ruffled a lot of feathers. Some argue it’s part of a larger trend by federal agencies to limit independent scientific and technical advice, with Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., pointing to the Navy’s recent termination of its longstanding Naval Research Advisory Committee.
But here’s the problem: While a rather novel concept in the 1960s, it’s not so much today. No disrespect to members or the work produced; there are plenty of hubs of advanced research and development serving the Pentagon today. There are the national academies as well as research institutes, including the think tank Rand and the corporation Mitre, the latter through which Jason actually funneled its activities, and which operates seven other federally funded research and development centers. There are those funded by defense companies — Skunk Works and Phantom Works from Lockheed Martin and Boeing, respectively, to name a couple — and there are an increasing number of innovators coming from the commercial tech community to shake up modern warfare — Palantir and SpaceX, for example. And then there’s the Pentagon’s own innovation hubs — including DARPA, which interestingly had been one of Jason’s primary sponsors. (That relationship went south in 2002 when Jason refused to allow DARPA to select new members.)
Are all these entities independent or nonprofit? Do some have corporate interests influencing where they focus their time and dollars? No and yes. But combined, they’re capable of providing comparable brainpower to Jason, and perhaps even more of the advanced R&D needed by the Pentagon to match efforts of near-peer adversaries around the world.
Maybe the bigger question is not whether this particular contract should be canceled, or whether the Pentagon will suffer if this group is disbanded. There are alternatives for getting this type of research done — some might argue too many. And there’s harm in distributing the best and brightest across too many institutions; the influence gets deluded. These scientists aren’t disappearing. They’ll just find other means of lending their expertise.
The bigger issue is whether the Pentagon is listening to any of them. In the words of one individual bemoaning the decision on social media, “sadly the DoD has a lovely record of ignoring” the analysis or even existence of the groups put in place to provide strategic and technological expertise — from the national academies and research centers to its own Defense Science Board. Or, said another, the input checks a box and allows the Pentagon to say: “It was studied.”
So, is the loss of Jason something worthy of mourning? Not necessarily. Let’s hope it’s instead a sign of a productive effort to consolidate expertise to help the DoD become smarter about innovation.