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DARPA and Jason Divorce
25 March 2002 (All day)
For 40 years, a high-prestige, low-profile group of about 40 academic scientists has advised the U.S. government on some of the most sensitive technical issues of the day. No longer. Last week the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced that over the winter it had ended its sponsorship of the group, known as Jason. The decision, first reported by National Public Radio, was triggered by DARPA's attempt to add three people to Jason's elite ranks. The move, sources told Science, triggered a showdown in which neither side was willing to back down.
DARPA and Jason are both children of the government's need for scientific advice in the wake of Russia's 1957 launch of Sputnik. But while DARPA is a federal agency, Jason was formed by academic scientists, mostly physicists. Jason has provided technical advice on topics ranging from biomedical imaging to ballistic missile defense to verification of the nuclear test ban treaty. The group takes its name from the sea-faring hero in Greek mythology.
Last week DARPA issued a terse statement thanking the group for its long service but suggesting that it had failed to keep up with the times. During the Cold War, the statement says, Jasons had helped with problems "that were highly physics-oriented." But more recently, the DARPA statement says, "technology developments moved more toward information technology, [and] the Jasons chose to not lose their physics character to focus on DARPA's current needs."
Steven E. Koonin, Jason's current head, takes issue with DARPA's criticisms, citing recent studies on civilian biodefense, landmine clearing, and Internet security. Koonin, a physicist and provost at the California Institute of Technology, also noted that the group, whose members now include chemists, biologists, engineers, and information scientists, is anxious to work on counterterrorism projects. "With all of our experience and expertise in counterterrorism, I can't believe that we've been sidelined." Koonin says Jason is seeking another sponsor within the Department of Defense.
The underlying cause for the split, according to those close to the situation, is an apparent disagreement over Jason's membership. Last winter, DARPA proposed three new members to the group--which until now has chosen its own members. Jason rejected the nominees, saying they did not meet its criteria for scientific standing. That led DARPA to cancel Jason's $1.5 million a year contract. DARPA's action also blocked funding from other government agencies--including the Department of Energy, the intelligence community, and the armed services--thus effectively stopping all Jason activity.