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Jason advisory group prepares to shut down, as U.S. contract extension seems unlikely

The Department of Defense has been Jason’s sponsor from the start.

By Jeffrey Mervis

Hope is fading that the U.S. government will extend a 30 April cutoff date for federal agencies to hire the 60-year-old Jason study group for independent, technical advice on national security issues. A meeting this weekend to plan a baker’s dozen of summer studies could instead be the group’s swan song.

“There is a very real chance that the Jason advisory group will effectively be disbanded shortly after the spring meeting, under circumstances that will make its recovery unlikely,” says Ellen Williams, vice chair of Jason, speaking on behalf of the group’s steering committee. “This is despite the indication of intent at high levels across the U.S. government to resolve the present situation by extending the Jason contract for 1 year.

“An extension would allow the studies requested by numerous government agencies for the summer of 2019 to be delivered,” notes Williams, a professor at the University of Maryland in College Park. “And it would allow for orderly planning and transition to a new government sponsor.”

A network of some 50 academic scientists, Jason has a long history of examining technical issues ranging from safeguarding the country’s nuclear arsenal to combating climate change. Last month its current sponsor, the office of the under secretary of defense for research and engineering, decided to let its 5-year contract expire at the end of this month. Jason officers had hoped for a 1-year extension that would buy them time to find a new sponsor. Without such a contract, Jason is unable to do work for any other federal entity—either within or outside the Department of Defense—that wants its advice.

Jason planned to do 13 studies this summer, including three for office of the Secretary of Defense and three for the National Nuclear Security Administration within the Department of Energy. The National Science Foundation had also reached out to the MITRE Corporation of McLean, Virginia, which manages the Jason contract, for a study on how threats to national security could impinge on its grantmaking process.

The expiring contract allowed government agencies to spend up to $45 million over 5 years on Jason studies. Williams says a typical study costs $500,000 to $600,000, which covers both the overhead and the expense of hosting panel members for 6 weeks in San Diego, California.

However, the financing for those activities is set to end next week, casting doubt on a summer session. “As a result, MITRE is moving forward with their legal requirements to cease work on April 30,” says Williams, speaking for the steering committee. “That, in turn, requires shutting down all Jason operational support, including the ability to accept contracts from study sponsors, maintaining the leased space for the studies, and archiving all Jason records.”

Williams, a physicist who led DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy under former President Barack Obama, is hoping for a last-minute reprieve. “The clock is running down. But it seems silly to let it run out when we’re so close to finding a solution.”

Source: Science Mag