The Chronicle of Higher Education June 7, 2002
Elite Panel of Academics Wins Fight to Continue Advising Military
BYLINE: RON SOUTHWICK
Given that the federal government is preoccupied with national security and engaged in a worldwide war on terrorism, a group of academic scientists that advises the military expected to be busier than ever this year. Instead, the elite panel ended up fighting to survive. Although the group avoided the ax, the struggle points up what some academic researchers say is the Defense Department's increasingly hostile attitude toward independent scientific advice.
The influential but little-known group, known as Project Jason, has since 1959 evaluated the Defense Department's research and spurred its entry into a number of areas, including new technologies involving lasers, submarine detection, and missile-defense systems. All but one of the group's 49 members are on college faculties.
In March, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency canceled its contract with Project Jason, worth $1.5-million per year. Although the group has also done work for the Department of Energy and other federal agencies, DARPA has always supplied most of its funds. In ending the contract, the agency said Project Jason's expertise in physics no longer matched the military's more-diverse technical challenges in other fields, like biology and information sciences. The group's scientists, however, say the real reason for the canceled contract was their objection to an attempt by DARPA to add three members, who lacked the research accomplishments of current members. Project Jason has always had final say over its membership.
"I can't think of a dumber time to have this flap," says Will Happer, a professor of physics at Princeton University, who is on the panel.
Relief and Worry
After some anxious weeks, the group secured a new contract last month with the Department of Defense's Directorate for Research and Engineering, which oversees DARPA. The terms are similar to those of the previous contract.
Project Jason's members are relieved that the money situation has been resolved and say a contract with DARPA's parent agency could end up giving them a greater role in setting research policies. "We may have a broader profile and view within the Defense Department," says the group's chairman, Stephen E. Koonin, who is provost and a professor of theoretical physics at the California Institute of Technology.
Still, the clash troubles university researchers and analysts of national science policy, who fear that the Pentagon is taking an increasingly adversarial approach to academe. They say that the military is often hostile to advice that counters its own views, and that such an attitude may deter university scientists from doing research or serving on advisory panels.
"One of the distinctive attributes of Jason has been the relative independence of its study process," says John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a research group that focuses on military and space policy. "There is a general trend in the Defense Department to reduce the possibility that someone may come up with the wrong answer or produce inconvenient conclusions."
Partnership of Necessity
Project Jason was created as part of the response to the growth of the Soviet space program in the 1950s. A trio of young physicists -- Marvin L. Goldberger, Kenneth Watson, and Keith Brueckner -- offered their talents to the government, and the Defense Department eagerly agreed to finance the advisory panel, recalls Herbert F. York, who co-founded DARPA in 1958.
"It was right after the launch of Sputnik," says Mr. York, who became chancellor of the University of California at San Diego and is one of several senior advisers to Project Jason. "People were looking for ideas, including the secretary of defense and even the president. There was a feeling that the United States was in serious danger of falling behind in science and technology."
Members say the name was inspired by the Greek myth of Jason and the Argonauts, the story of a young adventurer who embarks on a voyage to obtain the Golden Fleece. The young scientists of Jason won instant credibility as a valued technical resource to the military, Mr. York says.
Project Jason "brought fresh voices from outside the official establishment into the process," says Henry Kelly, president of the Federation of American Scientists.
The project is credited with guiding the military to conduct research on lasers and develop technology to detect submarines. In 1997, the group produced a study on bioterrorism that proved to be all too accurate. "We warned about the changing nature of biowarfare and said that we should be concerned with terrorists, not state actors," says Steven M. Block, a professor of applied physics and biological sciences at Stanford University.
This summer, the group will focus its attention on research opportunities related to the war on terrorism. Among other fields, the members will look at nanoscience, the study of matter at the atomic level. The military hopes that such research will lead to extraordinarily small computers, lighter and stronger metals for combat vehicles, and medical treatments aimed at specific molecules.
"Part of the attraction of the organization, for some of us, is working on technical topics related to national security that is in the news," says Mr. Koonin, the chairman. "This is real-world stuff."
Outside of the military, Project Jason has provided valuable guidance on the human-genome project and studies of global climate change, says Aristides Patrinos, associate director of the Energy Department's Office of Biological and Environmental Research. In the study of the human genome, the group "went out of the box in pursuing single-molecule sequencing," which involves looking at the bases that make up an individual DNA molecule, he explains, adding that without the group's support, the Energy Department might have been too timid to pursue such research on its own.
The group's members do not mince words, Mr. Patrinos says, and "that's what I need."
"They are brash and quite blunt. Even in the genome project, they chastised me for not investing enough in long-term basic research in sequencing technology. It was a decision I made due to flat budgets. I had to shortchange long-term research. They didn't like that."
Young and Restless
Some of the group's senior scientists, like Mr. Goldberger, a former president of Caltech, and Edward A. Frieman, a former director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, at the University of California at San Diego, retain roles as advisers but are less involved than they once were. But Project Jason is hardly a collection of elder scientists, says Mr. Happer, a former director of the Energy Department's Office of Science.
Most of those on the panel are in their late 40s or early 50s, he says. While Project Jason seeks to attract young scientists, it usually accepts only tenured professors as new members, primarily because of the commitment involved. The group spends four to six weeks each summer working on its annual reports.
Most of the members are physicists, but the roster has expanded to include chemists, biologists, mathematicians, and computer scientists as well, Mr. Happer says. Most of them decline to discuss the group's work, much of which is classified.
The criteria for joining the group include a record of research accomplishments, the gaining of top-secret clearance for military work, and a willingness to give over much of each summer to the effort. Project Jason requires "a sort of catholic nature about you, in the sense that you are interested in getting involved with problems you don't know much about," says Mr. Block, the Stanford professor.
Fight for Independence
Jason's rigorous standards for membership and its insistence on independence lay at the heart of its conflict with DARPA.
Mr. Koonin and other members say the group lost its contract with DARPA when it refused to capitulate to the agency's insistence on naming three people to the group. The members will not disclose the identities of those individuals but note that two of the three did not have Ph.D.'s. "They were clearly unqualified," says one group member.
"Jason has been in existence for an awfully long time and performed important work," says Michael S. Lubell, director of public affairs for the American Physical Society. "When you start adding people to a panel, you compromise its ability to do its work."
In a statement, DARPA says the contract was canceled because the group had failed to keep up with the times. "The Jasons proved very valuable back when the cold war was the threat," the statement reads. "After the cold war ended and technology developments moved more toward information technology, the Jasons chose to not lose their physics character to focus on DARPA's current needs."
Members of the group reject the suggestion that it is no longer attuned to the military's research needs, pointing to its interdisciplinary nature and its study of promising fields like nanoscience, which involves both chemistry and engineering.
However, Project Jason may have to broaden its horizons, says Mr. Kelly, of the Federation of American Scientists. The group's expertise is not limited to physics, but it has recruited biologists and computer scientists only recently, he says. "There can be legitimate debate about whether or not they moved fast enough."
Some observers, however, contend that Project Jason would err by shifting its focus away from the physical sciences. "I don't think you're going to fight a war with gene-splicing," says Mr. Lubell. "Military conflict today and for the foreseeable future in the United States is going to be based heavily on the technology drawn from physics and chemistry, and will make use of engineering, mathematics, and computer science."
And even with the project's financing restored, some believe the Defense Department has sent a message that it does not appreciate the value of research or independent advice. "The highest authorities aren't terribly interested in what scientists have to say," says Mr. York, the senior adviser.
As for DARPA's cancellation of Project Jason's contract, "if it is seen as an aberration or a blunder that the government shouldn't have done, it won't have long-term ramifications" for academe, says John P. Holdren, director of the program on science, technology, and public policy at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. But, he says, scientists would object "if it's the beginning of a pattern of government agencies' shaping the composition of panels advising them."
Mr. York, who has served on a number of government advisory panels, says it is important that Project Jason continue to attract top minds from a variety of disciplines. Unlike other panels, it conducts original research rather than simply discussing the latest findings.
"What sets Jason apart is that when they get together in the summer, they do new thinking," he says. "I assert flatlythere's nothing like Jason."
Copyright 2002 The Chronicle of Higher Education