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After Pentagon Ends Contract, Top-Secret Scientists Group Vows To Carry On (npr.org)
161 points by Meerax 29 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 40 comments

Headline should read "after funding cut, scientists look for new funding". Not quite as clickbaity though...

ETA: I used to work at a government lab. I've never heard a contractor say "they made the right choice. My work is obsolete/irrelevant/a waste of money." At the end of the day, people have livelihoods to maintain. Their work is always "needed now more than ever". Some of it actually is. Some of it isn't.

> I used to work at a government lab.

Most JASON scientists haven't worked at a government lab for decades. How is this relevant?

> ...I've never heard a contractor...

These aren't contractors, they are scientists. And not just any scientists. In most cases, they aren't even the scientists employed by a national lab. They're scientists employed by all manner of institutions, including universities who will pay their paychecks regardless of whether this funding comes in. Usually senior and well-respected.

Many of those scientists have, if not "fuck you money", at least "fuck you reputations" that translate into "fuck you money". E.g., the current chairperson is fucking Russell Hemley... he's not putting up with federal background checks because he needs the extra pennies...

JASON members work on JASON projects because they think those projects are important. Nobel laureates and other top scientists don't work on grant funded projects for the money... if all they cared about was feeding their families, they would just retire. And if all they cared about was money, they would pimp their reputations to private industry labs.

I don't know about these specific scientists but often professors only get paid for the school terms and must rely on externally funded research grants for the rest of the year.

If you don't bring in grant money, you'll end up with a lab roughly the size and utility of a shoebox.

You're missing the parent's point. Another (one-time?) JASON who you might have heard of is Bill Dally. He was a prof at Stanford, including being the department chair, and is the chief scientist / senior VP of Research at Nvidia.

Needless to say, silicon valley senior VPs don't usually need extra spending cash.

If the money isn’t an issue, then why is the entire article about the money? For example:

> The contract, run through the Mitre Corp., is the vehicle that allows the Jasons to do work with other parts of the government as well. Without it, the group has no way of getting the several million dollars in funding it needs to operate annually.

I got the impression that the money isn't all salaries. They need the funds to help with the research they do with the various agencies. Do they have staff during the summer meetings who assist? Do the agencies they work for need money to provide the information the Jasons need to do a study for them? The article doesn't have enough information to answer these questions, nor does it imply that the money all goes into their pockets.

Several million dollars is not a lot of money for a group this size. We're talking "travel to annual meetings and fund administrative overhead (e.g. security clearances are not cheap)" money.

There's "not in it for the money", and then there's "dipping into my personal funds".

Also, again, for many of these scientists, 1MM+ is the annual opportunity cost they pay to stay in academia/public sector vs. private industry. If they were in it for personal payout, they'd have jumped ship a long time ago.

>These aren't contractors, they are scientists.

If you are paid to perform a service based on the terms of a contract you are, by definition, a contractor.

It doesn't matter if you are cleaning toilets or hosting a conference on quantum computing.

> If you are paid to perform a service based on the terms of a contract you are, by definition, a contractor.

1. "Contractor" means something specific in the Defense industry. Every employee, including members of the armed forces and employees of DHS, are "paid to perform a service based on the terms of a contract" (the employment contract). But, of course, literally everyone knows that when I say "contractor" I definitely do not mean "someone who has signed an employment contract with the federal government".

2. The expectations associated with grants are different enough from most other contracts that there's a useful distinction between "grant work" and "contract work".

Perhaps but the JASON Group is the most famous group of top secret scientists. Half of their studies are classified but here's some that aren't-


JASON was founded as Project 137 by John Archibald Wheeler and others. It was only publicly confirmed to exist after the Pentagon Papers mentioned them.

Thanks, I'm particularly interested in their evaluation of low cost Fusion concepts. I really wish I could get some funding to build my prototype reactor.

I own a contracting company and we regularly tell clients they should cut the project we are working on because it doesnt provide enough value.

We do software requirements, identifying the minimum necessary features to maximize the value. Some projects have no redeeming value.

Who wants to waste a clients money working on something that has no value for a client?

>Who wants to waste a clients money working on something that >has no value for a client?

Isn't that the whole business model of Accenture and similar?

That's doing the least possible while billing the most. It's an optimizing function.

Doing valueless projects is a consequence of that function.

This is something I see on Twitter a bit (usually with "academics" who spend a lot of time telling other people how they should live their lives). "Very important work" is very subjective. Almost all of us want to think that our work is very important (myself included).

The article doesn't cover much of the history and mystery behind the Jason group. They were the stuff of conspiracy theory lore when I was younger.

MJ12, Bilderberg group. Think tanks. Anyone can join.

This seems shortsighted... they'll probably find more funding, but what a bunch of nonsense to have to deal with in the interim. This bit of the article makes it seem like it could be as petty as a clash of personalities:

> "The department remains committed to seeking independent technical advice and review," Pentagon spokesperson Heather Babb said. But Aftergood sees another reason for the end of the relationship. 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 so.

> "They were offering the opposite of cheerleading," he says. "And DOD decided that maybe they didn't want to pay for that any longer."

An interesting bit of trivia from the wiki page shows they lost funding before in 2002 for something perhaps just as petty, them not relenting on having exclusive control over who they let join:

> In 2002, DARPA decided to cut its ties with JASON. DARPA had not only been one of JASON's primary sponsors, it was also the channel through which JASON received funding from other sponsors. DARPA's decision came after JASON's refusal to allow DARPA to select three new JASON members. Since JASON's inception, new members have always been selected by its existing members. After much negotiation and letter-writing—including a letter by Congressman Rush Holt of New Jersey[26]—funding was subsequently secured from an office higher in the defense hierarchy, the office of the Director, Defense Research & Engineering, name changed to Assistant Secretary of Defense (Research & Engineering) (ASD (R&E)) in 2011.[27]

I'm hesitant to blindly take the scientists' side however. I'm reminded of a remark from a Feynman interview (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f61KMw5zVhg):

> Honors, and from that day to this, always bothered me. I had trouble when I became a member of the National Academy of Science, and I had ultimately to resign. Because there was another organization, most of whose time was spent in choosing who was illustrious enough to be allowed to join us in our organization. Including such questions as: ‘we physicists have to stick together because there’s a very good chemist that they’re trying to get in and we haven’t got enough room…’. What’s the matter with chemists? The whole thing was rotten. Because the purpose was mostly to decide who could have this honor. OK? I don’t like honors.

> I don’t like honors.

It's not about honors, but about things like:

"Probably their most famous study was about trying to stop the infiltration from North Vietnam into the South," ... "The problem was that North Vietnamese troops and supplies were hard to find beneath the dense jungle canopy. The Jasons' solution was to develop a system of remote sensors that could be airdropped into the jungle and provide intelligence on the enemy. The program, like much to do with Vietnam, was controversial and didn't work perfectly. But it laid the groundwork for modern electronic warfare"

Compare with, for example:


Also, I wouldn't be surprised that there is a connection between "They were offering the opposite of cheerleading" and "JASON also produced early work on the science of global warming and acid rain." (second quote from Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/JASON_(advisory_group) )

The remark from Feynman may have been fair at the time, but JASON has nominated and has been joined by scientists who aren’t physicists for quite some time: certainly predating the dust-up with DARPA.

I know it probably wasn’t intended, but the proximity of those two things 1) DARPA issues and 2) Feynman on honors could be uncharitably read that DARPA wanted a broader set of disciplines that JASON refused. That’s not true.

I would trust membership of JASON to themselves vs DARPA, but that may just be my own prejudices: I think of the current DARPA as a shadow of its former (great) self without the expertise to pick JASON members without succumbing to various political pressures.

Yeah, my prior is also weighted towards thinking JASON itself is going to be a better group than the NAS was when Feynman made his comment and is able to make fair membership decisions. I didn't intend to accuse just to bring it up as one of several reasons why I have meta-uncertainty about my prior since reading about those interesting bits (and another quip of membership being "predominated by theoretical physicists") reminded me of Feynman's story, and also I like sharing Feynman stories. :)

I would agree too that DARPA is a shadow of its former self, though on the other hand that position adds its own uncertainties for me since I hold at minimum the strong possibility of the same being true for the likes of JASON, the NSA's crypto groups, NASA, Lockheed's Skunk Works, or any other US-government-intertwined entities that nevertheless had or still have great respect. Decline is everywhere if you look for it.

You see evidence of decline everywhere, but I'm curious where you might see evidence of ascent.

> I'm hesitant to blindly take the scientists' side however

I'm not. It's not a lot of money, and the Pentagon can think of far worse ways to blow that kind of money.

What I gather from the article, if "a few million" means $3 million, is that we've been paying 60 people $50,000 apiece for a few weeks of meetings each summer. Without knowing the value of the output of those meetings - only that they've lost the funding - "that's a lot of money" is a reasonable default position whether there are even worse ways to spend it or not.

On a tangent, the group is part of Mitre Corp which maintains the CVE: https://cve.mitre.org/ amongst many other security related publications.

Their SEG is a must read for anyone who wants to dive in or understand a systematic approach to System Engineering. https://www.mitre.org/sites/default/files/publications/se-gu...

The United States military-industrial complex is the world's largest jobs program. Paying sixty scientists for research means five hundred fewer people in a congressional district building tanks we don't need and can't use.

I agree with everything you say here. But I can't tell whether this is an argument for, or against, funding The Jasons.

I don't know whether the Jasons are necessary. I would wager they're a better use of money than half of the stuff the pentagon does spend money on.

Look at the papers they worked on. https://fas.org/irp/agency/dod/jason Seems like they do important and meaningful research beyond tanks.

A good book about the history of the Jasons (and everything in and around DARPA) is The Pentagon's Brain: An Uncensored History of DARPA (2016) by Annie Jacobsen. Recommended read!



So much for that "top secret".

Which mathematicians or CS are (were) members of this group after 2000?

Do you want supervillains? Because this is how you create supervillains.

> The Jasons' solution was to develop a system of remote sensors that could be airdropped into the jungle and provide intelligence on the enemy. The program, like much to do with Vietnam, was controversial and didn't work perfectly

LOL so a bunch of ivory tower academics who have never left the cushy confines of campus let alone entered a battlefield come up with impractical and useless inventions that got dumped within a day. What's the bet men on the ground hated them! And the real solution came from some comms officer who knows a bit about soldering and sensors (and the reality of jungle warfare) probably.

Im surprised the DOD put up with them for so long.

Who do you think designs aircraft, ground vehicles, radar, and weapons systems? The vast majority of that work is done by people who have never seen combat, and that includes technology that the troops on the ground do love.


You've really wandered onto the wrong website if you don't like academics.

At least as far as the UK is concerned, in my time in the Aerospace Defence industry every single person I've worked with has been an academic in some sense.

There are almost no ex-soldiers involved in the process, unless they have an academic background. For us, the Defence Engineering and Science Group bring in a think-tank of currently serving soldiers to discuss their needs with them, then DESG work on procurement. They then contract that out to a private R&D company. We get a spec and work to fulfil that. From friends within the industry, other than perhaps BAE which do look favourably on ex-soldiers provided they have an degree (more academics huh...), all the work is done by a bunch of postgraduate scientists. It seems to me that your perception of how the 'big private companies' work it somewhat outdated...


Absolutely any successful aircraft has pilots on the development team. And you're absolutely right that us in the computer business DO spend a lot of time navel gazing instead of listening to the users. It's endemic.

>Absolutely any successful aircraft has pilots on the development team

Of course it does. But I'm a bit unsure as to how this has gone from academics don't know nuthin. To design teams who never listen to users are bad. The latter is a measured, reasonable argument. The former is just anti-intellectual nonsense. No one every said anything about having zero pilots on an aircraft development team.

>And you're absolutely right that us in the computer business DO spend a lot of time navel gazing instead of listening to the users. It's endemic.

That's endemic everywhere from CEOs, to the guy changing your brakes, to the real estate agent selling you a house. It has absolutely nothing to do with academics.

And again this is a much different argument from Computer Scientists rarely produce anything useful.

The problem with the OP's argument is that you can't pin it down. Academics are bad--except when their R&D work produces something useful. Then they weren't academics, they were problem solving engineers, and it was the guy on the ground who did the real work their anyway. Computer Scientists are bad except in the case of something like asymmetrical encryption--well in that case it was one of the rare instances where they did something useful.

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