Essentially Annihilated: What is JASON?


Freeman Dyson      Robert Gomer       Steven Weinberg     S. Courtenay Wright


For more than 40 years, an elite group of scientific advisors known as the JASON has provided the federal government with largely classified analyses on defense and arms controls issues. JASON members meet each summer. Acting on assignment from the Pentagon, the Department of Energy and other federal agencies and working on their own ideas, they emerge from seclusion six to eight weeks later, armed with detailed reports on their summer studies, which eventually help to shape the nation’s scientific policies.

The JASONs, named after the mythical Jason and the Argonauts — a group of young adventurers who embark on a journey to obtain the Golden Fleece — were founded in 1959. At the end of World War II, many of the country’s leading scientists, who had been involved in such war research as the atomic bomb and radar, left full-time government work and returned to the college campuses. To ensure that the federal government did not lose access to this valuable talent, the Defense Department sought to establish an ongoing consulting liaison with first-rate scientists. Those of the highest caliber were recruited to join the prestigious JASONs group, whose current 50-odd membership includes Nobel laureates and some of the brightest young scientists in the nation.

The vast majority of JASON’s 20 to 30 annual studies remain classified, making its impact hard to gauge. In 1966, the JASONs completed three important studies–on the efficacy of strategic bombing in cutting the VC supply lines; on constructing an electronic barrier across Vietnam; and on tactical nuclear weapons. The first two reports are known to have had a major impact on then US Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s views on the United States’ inability to win the war.

JASON keeps an intentionally low profile, largely because of its classified work. There is no comprehensive list of members, and professors who are JASONs rarely mention the job on their resumes. Originally all male due to the era in which it was founded, 10% of its current membership is female. Since the group was founded, its research focus has shifted from a heavy emphasis on physics, to include other fields. Of the group’s current membership, 19 are biologists, chemists, engineers, computer experts and other non-physicists. In an effort to remain young and relevant, new scientists are routinely rotated in and older members become less active senior advisors when they turn 65 [1].

In March 2002, JASON’s future was cast into doubt when the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (or DARPA) announced that it had severed its 42-year-old contract with the group. The group, which has 50 members, relies on a $1.5 million annual budget from the Department of Defense and $2.25 million from the Department of Energy and a variety of federal agencies[2]. After some anxious weeks, the group secured a new contract in June 2002, with the Department of Defense’s Directorate for Research and Engineering, which oversees DARPA. Still, the rift has alienated many JASON members, many of whom have expressed fears that the Pentagon’s increasingly adversarial attitude towards science may deter some scientific experts from doing research or serving on advisory panels.


[1]  Jim Puzzanghera, “Pentagon Alienating Elite Science Advisers,” (May 12, 2002), The San Jose Mercury News.

James Glanz, “Defense Department Agency Severs its Ties to an Elite Panel of Scientists,” (March 23, 2002), The New York Times.

Tom Zamora Collina, “Strike up the Ban: The View from Washington” (January/February 1996, Vol. 52, No. 1), Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

[2]  Bruce Lieberman, “Pentagon cuts off SD-based research group: Rift leaves Jason, which has been providing military with answers for 42 years, in the lurch,” 2002 Union-Tribune Publishing Co. Reprinted March 31, 2002, University of California, San Diego, Division of Physical Sciences website.

Statement of the Secretary of Energy Federico Pena on the Schedule for Subcritical Experiments,” 2002, Nuclear Age Peace Foundation website.

Ron Southwick, “Elite Panel of Academics Wins Fight to Continue Advising Military,” June 7, 2002, The Chronicle of Higher Education.