After Pentagon Ends Contract, Top-Secret Scientists Group Vows To Carry On The 60 or so members of the Jasons are normal academics by day. But each summer, they come together to study tough problems for the military, intelligence agencies and other parts of the government.
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After Pentagon Ends Contract, Top-Secret Scientists Group Vows To Carry On

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After Pentagon Ends Contract, Top-Secret Scientists Group Vows To Carry On

After Pentagon Ends Contract, Top-Secret Scientists Group Vows To Carry On

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

For decades, the Pentagon has turned to a mysterious group of scientists for advice known as the Jasons. They've studied everything from spy satellites to the nation's nuclear weapons. Now the Department of Defense is ending its relationship with the Jasons. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel looks into why.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: There are about 60 members of the Jasons. By day, they're normal academics working at colleges and universities, but each summer they come together to study really tough problems for the military, intelligence agencies and other parts of the government. They're a bit like Q...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GOLDFINGER")

DESMOND LLEWELYN: (As Q) We've installed some rather interesting modifications.

BRUMFIEL: ...The top-secret scientist who invents new gadgets to help James Bond.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GOLDFINGER")

LLEWELYN: (As Q) Smokescreen, oil slick, real bulletproof screen.

RUSSELL HEMLEY: Q - no, I don't think of that (laughter).

BRUMFIEL: That's Russell Hemley, a physicist at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Hemley is the chair of the Jasons and one of the few members who publicly identifies himself as part of the group. He says the Jasons are unlike anything else out there - academics at the top of their individual fields with security clearances that let them work on any problem.

HEMLEY: We're very independent. We have this diversity of talent. And we often come up with very different, very original perspectives and solutions to problems.

BRUMFIEL: The Jasons go back to the early days of the Cold War.

ANN FINKBEINER: They just formed themselves back in 1960.

BRUMFIEL: Ann Finkbeiner is author of a book called "The Jasons." These stubborn researchers were determined to advise the government whether the government wanted it or not.

FINKBEINER: Probably their most famous study was about trying to stop the infiltration from North Vietnam into the South.

BRUMFIEL: The problem as laid out in this 1969 Pentagon film was that North Vietnamese troops and supplies were hard to find.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The dense jungle canopy overhead, the complex network of roads, trails and footpaths make the detection of this infiltrating traffic difficult.

BRUMFIEL: The Jasons' solution was to develop a system of remote sensors that could be airdropped into the jungle and provide intelligence on the enemy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: All sensor signals are directed to a digital data computer.

BRUMFIEL: The program, like much to do with Vietnam, was controversial, and it didn't work perfectly. But it laid the groundwork for modern electronic warfare where sensors provide troops with detailed battlefield information. Jasons have worked on other tough problems like missile defense and submarine communications.

Then in late March, the Pentagon abruptly announced it was ending its contract with the Jasons. In a statement, it said the move made, quote, "economic sense." But Steven Aftergood isn't buying that argument. Aftergood is with the Independent Federation of American Scientists and has spent years watching the Jasons work. He says that the Jasons are a blunt bunch. If they think an idea is dumb or won't work, they aren't afraid to say it.

STEVEN AFTERGOOD: They were offering the opposite of cheerleading, and DOD maybe decided it did not want to pay for that any longer.

BRUMFIEL: But Aftergood says it's a real mistake to cut ties with the Jasons now. The Pentagon is embarking on ambitious research into artificial intelligence, quantum computing, advanced missiles, things that the Jasons know a lot about.

AFTERGOOD: The idea that they're going to cut back on the kind of advice that the Jasons provide is not good for the Department of Defense; it's not good for the nation.

BRUMFIEL: Late Thursday, another agency, the Department of Energy, signaled its willingness to support the Jasons. One way or another, he believes their work will continue. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News, Washington.

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