Pentagon Cancels Contract for JASON Advisory Panel

In a startling blow to the system of independent science and technology advice, the Department of Defense decided not to renew its support for the JASON defense science advisory panel, it was disclosed yesterday.

“Were you aware that [the JASON contract] has been summarily terminated by the Pentagon?”

That was one of the first questions asked by Rep. Jim Cooper, chair of the House Armed Services Committee Strategic Forces Subcommittee, at a hearing yesterday (at about 40’20”).

NNSA Administrator Lisa Gordon-Hagerty replied that she was aware that the Pentagon had taken some action, and said that she had asked her staff to find out more. She noted that NNSA has an interest in maintaining the viability of the JASON panel, particularly since “We do have some ongoing studies with JASON.”

In fact, JASON performs technical studies for many agencies inside and outside of the national security bureaucracy and it is highly regarded for the quality of its work.

So why is the Pentagon threatening its future?

Even to insiders, the DoD’s thought process is obscure and uncertain.

“To understand it you first have to understand the existing contract structure,” one official said. “This is a bit arcane, but MITRE currently has an Indefinite Delivery / Indefinite Quantity (IDIQ) contract with the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD), the purpose of which is to manage and operate the JASON effort. However, you don’t actually do anything with an IDIQ contract; rather, the purpose of the IDIQ contract [is to] have Task Orders (TO’s) placed on it. These TO’s are essentially mini-contracts in and of themselves, and all the actual work is performed according to the TO’s. This structure allows any government agency to commission a JASON study; conceptually, all you need to do is just open another TO for that study. (The reality is slightly more complicated, but that’s the basic idea).”

“The underlying IDIQ contract has a 5-year period of performance, which just expired on March 31. Last November, OSD started the process of letting a new 5-year IDIQ contract with essentially the same structure so that the cycle could continue. They decided to compete the contract, solicited bids, and were going to announce the contract award in mid-March. Instead, what happened is that about two weeks ago (March 28, two days before the expiration of the existing IDIQ contract) they announced that they were canceling the solicitation and would not be awarding another contract at all. Instead, they offered to award a single contract for a single study without the IDIQ structure that allows other agencies to commission studies.”

But “I do not know the reason” for the cancellation, the official said.

And so far, those who do know are not talking. The Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (Research and Engineering) “would not answer any questions or discuss the matter in any way whatsoever.”

The news was first reported in “Storied Jason science advisory group loses contract with Pentagon” by Jeffrey Mervis and Ann Finkbeiner in Science magazine, and was first noticed by Stephen Young.

The JASON panel has performed studies (many of which are classified) for federal agencies including the National Nuclear Security Administration, the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Reconnaissance Office, as well as the Census Bureau and the Department of Health and Human Services.

Lately, the Department of Agriculture denied a Freedom of Information Act request for a copy of a 2016 JASON report that it had sponsored entitled “New Techniques for Evaluating Crop Production.” The unclassified report is exempt from disclosure under the deliberative process privilege, USDA lawyers said. That denial is under appeal.

The Pentagon move to cancel the JASON contract appears to be part of a larger trend by federal agencies to limit independent scientific and technical advice. As noted by Rep. Cooper at yesterday’s hearing, the Navy also lately terminated its longstanding Naval Research Advisory Committee.

Navy Torpedoes Scientific Advisory Group

This week the U.S. Navy abruptly terminated its own scientific advisory group, depriving the service of a source of internal critique and evaluation.

The Naval Research Advisory Committee (NRAC) was established by legislation in 1946 and provided science and technology advice to the Navy for the past 73 years. Now it’s gone.

The decision to disestablish the Committee was announced in a March 29 Federal Register notice, which did not provide any justification for eliminating it. Phone and email messages to the office of the Secretary of the Navy seeking more information were not returned.

“I think it’s a shortsighted move,” said one Navy official, who was not part of the decisionmaking process.

This official said that the Committee had been made vulnerable by an earlier effort to reduce the number of Navy advisory committees. Instead of remaining an independent entity, the NRAC was redesignated as a sub-committee of the Secretary of the Navy Advisory Panel, which provides policy advice to the Secretary. It was a poor fit for the NRAC technologists, the official said, since they don’t do policy and were thus “misaligned.” When the Secretary decided to eliminate the Panel, the NRAC was swept away with it.

Did the NRAC do or say something in particular to trigger the Navy’s wrath? If so, it’s unclear what that might have been. “This is the most highly professional crew I’ve seen,” the Navy official said. “They stay between the lines.”

The NRAC was the Navy counterpart to the Army Science Board and the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board. It has no obvious replacement.

“This will leave the Navy without an independent and objective technical advisory body, which is not in the best interests of the Navy or the nation,” said a Navy scientist.

According to the NRAC website (which is still online for now), “The Naval Research Advisory Committee (NRAC) is an independent civilian scientific advisory group dedicated to providing objective analyses in the areas of science, research and development. By its recommendations, the NRAC calls attention to important issues and presents Navy management with alternative courses of action.”

Its mission was “To know the problems of the Navy and Marine Corps, keep abreast of the current research and development programs, and provide an independent, objective assessment capability through investigative studies.”

A 2017 report on Autonomous and Unmanned Systems in the Department of the Navy appears to be the NRAC’s most recent unclassified published report.

Under Secretary of the Navy Thomas B. Modly ordered disestablishment of the NRAC in a 21 February 2019 memo.

“This was a sudden and unexpected move according to people I know,” said the Navy scientist.  “I have not yet seen an explanation for its termination.”

JASON Endorses Further Fusion Power Research

The JASON scientific advisory panel cautiously endorsed further research into what is known as Magneto-Inertial Fusion (MIF) as a step towards achieving fusion-generated electricity.

“Magneto-Inertial Fusion (MIF) is a physically plausible approach to studying controlled thermonuclear fusion in a region of parameter space that is less explored than Inertial Confinement Fusion (ICF) or Magnetic Confinement Fusion (MCF).”

“Despite having received ~1% the funding of MCF and ICF, MIF experiments have made rapid progress in recent years toward break-even conditions,” the JASONs said in a report to the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) late last year.

Even so, “Given the immaturity of the technologies, the future ability of fusion-generated electricity to meet commercial constraints cannot be usefully assessed. Rapidly developing infrastructures for natural gas and renewable energy sources and storage will compete with any future commercial fusion efforts.”

See Prospects for Low Cost Fusion Development, JASON Report JSR-18-011, November 2018.

The fusion report is one of two unclassified reports prepared by the JASONs in 2018. (Release of the second is pending.) The other twelve reports from last year are classified.

The New York Times recently provided an overview of fusion research in Clean, Abundant Energy: Fusion Dreams Never End by C. Claiborne Ray, January 11, 2019.

Meanwhile, the Federation of American Scientists warned that the current shutdown of federal agencies threatens many aspects of U.S. science and technology.

“The partial government shutdown is compromising the very research that is important to the health and security of our nation. Important scientific breakthroughs could be compromised or lost with each and every day that the shutdown continues,” FAS said in a January 16 letter to the White House and Congress.

“We therefore urge you to open the federal government, send researchers back to work at their agencies, and allow science to flourish throughout the United States.”

Pentagon Reaffirms Policy on Scientific Integrity

“It is DoD policy to support a culture of scientific and engineering integrity,” according to a Department of Defense directive that was reissued last week.

This is in large part a matter of self-interest, since the Department depends upon the availability of competent and credible scientists and engineers.

“Science and engineering play a vital role in the DoD’s mission, providing one of several critical inputs to policy and systems acquisition decision making. The DoD recognizes the importance of scientific and engineering information, and science and engineering as methods for maintaining and enhancing its effectiveness and its credibility with the public.  The DoD is dedicated to preserving the integrity of the scientific and engineering activities it conducts.”

Several practical consequences flow from this policy that are spelled out in the directive, including:

–Permitting publication of fundamental research results

–Making scientific and engineering information available on the Internet

–Making articulate and knowledgeable spokespersons available to the media upon request for interviews on science and engineering

The policy further states that:

–Federal scientists and engineers may speak to the media and to the public about scientific and technical matters based on their official work with appropriate coordination with the scientists’ or engineers’ organizations.

–DoD approval to speak to the media or the public shall not be unreasonably delayed or withheld.

–In no circumstance may DoD personnel ask or direct scientists or engineers to alter or suppress their professional findings, although they may suggest that factual errors be corrected.

The reaffirmation of such principles, which were originally adopted in 2012, does not guarantee their consistent application in practice. But it does provide a point of reference and a foothold for defending scientific integrity in the Department.

See Scientific and Engineering Integrity, DoD Instruction 3200.20, July 26, 2012, Incorporating Change 1, December 5, 2017.

US-China Scientific Cooperation “Mutually Beneficial”

The US and China have successfully carried out a wide range of cooperative science and technology projects in recent years, the State Department told Congress last year in a newly released report.

Joint programs between government agencies on topics ranging from pest control to elephant conservation to clean energy evidently worked to the benefit of both countries.

“Science and technology engagement with the United States continues to be highly valued by the Chinese government,” the report said.

At the same time, “Cooperative activities also accelerated scientific progress in the United States and provided significant direct benefit to a range of U.S. technical agencies.”

The 2016 biennial report to Congress, released last week under the Freedom of Information Act, describes programs that were ongoing in 2014-2015.

See Implementation of Agreement between the United States and China on Science and Technology, report to Congress, US Department of State, April 2016.

Science & Technology Issues Facing Congress, & More from CRS

Science and technology policy issues that may soon come before Congress were surveyed in a new report from the Congressional Research Service.

Overarching issues include the impact of recent reductions in federal spending for research and development.

“Concerns about reductions in federal R&D funding have been exacerbated by increases in the R&D investments of other nations (China, in particular); globalization of R&D and manufacturing activities; and trade deficits in advanced technology products, an area in which the United States previously ran trade surpluses. At the same time, some Members of Congress have expressed concerns about the level of federal funding in light of the current federal fiscal condition. In addition, R&D funding decisions may be affected by differing perspectives on the appropriate role of the federal government in advancing science and technology.”

See Science and Technology Issues in the 115th Congress, March 14, 2017.

Other new and updated reports from the Congressional Research Service include the following.

The American Health Care Act, March 14, 2017

Previewing a 2018 Farm Bill, March 15, 2017

EPA Policies Concerning Integrated Planning and Affordability of Water Infrastructure, updated March 14, 2017

National Park Service: FY2017 Appropriations and Ten-Year Trends, updated March 14, 2017

Qatar: Governance, Security, and U.S. Policy, updated March 15, 2017

Northern Ireland: Current Issues and Ongoing Challenges in the Peace Process, updated March 14, 2017

Navy LX(R) Amphibious Ship Program: Background and Issues for Congress, updated March 14, 2017

Under Pressure: Long Duration Undersea Research

“The Office of Naval Research is conducting groundbreaking research into the dangers of working for prolonged periods of time in extreme high and low pressure environments.”

Why? In part, it reflects “the increased operational focus being placed on undersea clandestine operations,” said Rear Adm. Mathias W. Winter in newly published answers to questions for the record from a February 2016 hearing.

“The missions include deep dives to work on the ocean floor, clandestine transits in cold, dark waters, and long durations in the confines of the submarine. The Undersea Medicine Program comprises the science and technology efforts to overcome human shortfalls in operating in this extreme environment,” he told the House Armed Services Committee.

See DoD FY2017 Science and Technology Programs: Defense Innovation to Create the Future Military Force, House Armed Services Committee hearing, February 24, 2016.

Garwin to Receive Presidential Medal of Freedom

The celebrated and accomplished individuals selected by President Obama to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom — the nation’s highest civilian honor — include figures such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill and Melinda Gates, Robert Redford, Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jordan– and Richard L. Garwin.

As noted by a November 16 White House news release, “Richard Garwin is a polymath physicist who earned a Ph.D. under Enrico Fermi at age 21 and subsequently made pioneering contributions to U.S. defense and intelligence technologies, low-temperature and nuclear physics, detection of gravitational radiation, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), computer systems, laser printing, and nuclear arms control and nonproliferation.”

The Medals will be presented at the White House on November 22.

The giving of awards is fraught with latent meanings and assertions of power and identity (as the hullabaloo over Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize, and Dylan’s muted response to it, show).

In this case, a Presidential Medal of Freedom will hardly enlarge the reputation of Garwin, who could not be more highly esteemed by those who know him or are familiar with his work.

But it casts a somewhat unexpected and therefore moving new light on the Obama White House, which had the breadth of awareness to recognize Garwin and to select him for this honor, together with those who are more widely famous.

Over here, Garwin is practically family, having been a member of the Board of the Federation of American Scientists for many years and a supporter of the organization, including the project on government secrecy, for even longer.

FAS maintains the Garwin Archive, an online collection of many of his published and unpublished works. Earlier this week, we posted slides from his latest paper entitled “Don’t Reprocess Spent Fuel from Light-Water Reactors,” which was presented this month at a seminar in China.

New Rules on Classified Human Subject Research at the Dept of Energy

The Department of Energy last month issued new guidance on the conduct of classified scientific research involving human subjects.

While all human subject research is governed by federal regulations, the new DOE policy imposes several additional requirements whenever such research is to be performed on a classified basis.

For example, the proposed classified research must be reviewed and approved in advance by an Institutional Review Board, and the Board must include a non-scientist member and a member who is not a governmental employee (though he or she must hold a security clearance for this purpose). Also, the normal requirement for informed consent by the human subject cannot be waived.

See Protection of Human Subjects in Classified Research, DOE Notice N 443.1, approved January 21, 2016.

The nature of any such classified human subject research was not described. Speculatively, it might include certain types of research related to polygraph testing or other deception detection techniques. In the past, the Atomic Energy Commission notoriously carried out radiation experiments on unwitting human subjects, and the Central Intelligence Agency conducted behavior modification experiments involving drugs and other stimuli.

It seems that DOE today does little classified human subject research at its own initiative. Rather, “Almost all of the classified [DOE] human subjects research is done on behalf of other Federal sponsors under full cost recovery,” according to a related 2015 DOE memorandum.

The new DOE guidance was prepared after Department attorneys determined last year that a 1997 policy issued by President Bill Clinton was still in effect and applicable to DOE and its contractors. See Strengthened Protections for Human Subjects of Classified Research, March 27, 1997.

Department of Defense policy on classified research involving human subjects is set forth in Protection of Human Subjects and Adherence to Ethical Standards in DoD-Supported Research, DoD Instruction 3216.02, November 8, 2011.

Of possible related interest, the National Declassification Center announced today that 37 cubic feet of classified subject files from the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) had been declassified and made available to researchers.

A Social Science Perspective on International Science Engagement

In the previous issue of the Public Interest Report (Spring 2015), Dr. Charles Ferguson’s President’s Message focused on the importance of empathy in science and security engagements. This was a most welcome surprise, as concepts such as empathy do not typically make it to the pages of technical scientific publications. Yet the social and behavioral sciences play an increasingly critical part in issues as far ranging as arms control negotiations, inspection and verification missions, and cooperative security projects.

The Middle East Scientific Institute for Security (MESIS), the organization that I have headed for five years now, has developed a particular niche in looking at the role of culture in these science and security issues. MESIS works to reduce chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats across the region by creating partnerships within the region, and between the region and the international community, with culture as a major component of this work.

As with empathy, culture is often a misunderstood and misappropriated concept for most policymakers. Admittedly, it is not something that is easy to capture, describe, or measure, which may explain why it is not a popular topic. Notwithstanding, there is growing evidence that cultural awareness can make a crucial difference to the prospective success of negotiations, inspections, and cooperative endeavors. The Central Intelligence Agency produced a report in 2006[1] that examined how a lack of cultural awareness among those involved in Iraq’s inspection regime in the mid-1990s resulted in misinterpretation of the behavior of Iraqi officials, leading to an assumption that the exhibited behavior was that of denial and deception. The report relayed a wide range of incidents that were misread by those overseeing the inspection regime. These included: 1) Iraqi scientists’ understanding of the limitations of their weapons programs, combined with their fear to report these limitations to senior leaders, created two accounts about how far advanced these programs were; and 2) Iraqi leaders’ intent on maintaining an illusion of WMD possession to deter Iran regardless of the implications this may have on the inspection regime. The report even cites misinterpretations of customary (read: obligatory) tea served to inspectors at sites under investigation as being a delay tactic. These incidents demonstrate that local cultural factors, on both societal and state levels, were major determinants of nonproliferation performance, but were poorly understood by inspection officials who did not have enough cultural awareness.

It has become equally important to consider intercultural awareness when it comes to cooperative endeavors in non-adversarial circumstances. The sustainability of cooperative programmatic efforts, such as capacity building, cannot be achieved without a solid understanding of cultural awareness. Though terms such as “local ownership” and “partnerships” have become commonplace in the world of scientific cooperative engagements, it is rare to see them translated successfully into policy. As a local organization, MESIS cannot compete with any of the large U.S. scientific organizations on a technical level, yet by virtue of its knowledge of the regional context, it has numerous advantages over any other organization from outside the region. Try getting a U.S. expert to discuss the role that cultural fatalism can play in improving chemical safety and security standards among Middle Eastern laboratory personnel and this becomes all the more apparent. For example, a Jordanian expert looking to promote best practices among laboratory personnel once made an excellent argument by referring to a Hadith by the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) that calls for the need to be safe and reasonable ahead of, and in conjunction with, placing one’s faith in God. There have been several studies about the relationship between the cultural fatalism of Arab and Muslim societies, and their perceptions of safety culture, especially on road safety. Although there is no ethnographic evidence to support the claim that this is applicable to lab safety, an anecdotal assessment would strongly suggest so.

Language is another critical area for cultural awareness, as exemplified by the success of a cooperative endeavor between the Chinese Scientists Group on Arms Control (CSGAC) of the Chinese People’s Association for Peace and Disarmament, and the Committee on International Security and Arms Control (CISAC) of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. These groups have been meeting for almost 20 years to discuss nuclear arms control, nuclear nonproliferation, nuclear energy, and regional security issues, with the goal of reducing the possibility of nuclear weapons use and reducing nuclear proliferation in the world at large. Throughout the exchanges, it was often evident that beyond the never-simple translation of one language into the other, there was also the difficulty of differing interpretations of terms. Accordingly, a glossary of about 1000 terms was jointly developed by the two sides to ensure that future misunderstandings possibly between new members or non-bilingual speakers could be avoided.[2]  In a similar vein, the World Institute for Nuclear Security (WINS) has partnered with MESIS in developing Arabic versions of its Best Practices Guidelines. This is certainly not due to any shortage of Arabic-language translators in Vienna, but rather because they rightly distinguish between translation and indigenization. Typically, a translator with limited understanding of nuclear security is unable to indigenize a text in the way that a local expert can. In the case of the Guidelines, the use of local experts went a long way to ensure that the concepts themselves were understood by Arabic-language speakers (a case not very different from the U.S.-Chinese example).

The sustainability of the international community’s programmatic efforts in the Middle East and elsewhere is strongly tied to this notion of cultural context. MESIS manages the Radiation Cross Calibration Measurement (RMCC) network, which is a project that seeks to raise radiation measurement standards across the Arab world. It has always been a challenge to find funding for this network from funds dedicated to nonproliferation and nuclear security as the project’s relevance or utility is not readily apparent to decision makers. More creative thinking is needed here. A project like RMCC does in fact build the infrastructure and capacity needed for areas such as nuclear forensics and Additional Protocol compliance[3], but it also addresses more local concerns such as environmental monitoring and improved laboratory management. These sorts of win-win endeavors require a strong degree of cultural awareness. If a network of nuclear forensics laboratories had in fact been established, funding would probably be secured with greater ease, while sustainability would certainly be threatened, because ultimately, nuclear forensics is not currently a priority area for the region.

In a period when there is a tremendous amount of skepticism about international science engagement, increased cultural awareness may lead to more meaningful and, in turn, sustainable outcomes. One would expect this to be more readily apparent to members of a scientific community. There may be some merit in taking a page out of the book of another community, the commercial product development one. They are keenly aware of cultural paradigms when developing products for different markets, often leading to better returns.


 

[1] Misreading Intentions: Iraq’s Reaction to Inspections Created Picture of Deception: Iraq WMD Retrospective Series (number redacted), 5 January 2006. Accessed online October 1 2015 via the Freedom of Information Act via http://www.foia.cia.gov/sites/default/files/document_conversions/89801/DOC_0005567895.pdf

[2] Published by the National Academies Press in Washington D.C and the Atomic Energy Press in Beijing respectively, 2008.

[3] The Additional Protocol enhances the Comprehensive Safeguards Agreements that states parties to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty have with the International Atomic Energy Agency


Nasser Bin Nasser is the Managing Director of the Middle East Scientific Institute for Security (MESIS) based in Amman, Jordan. He is also the Head of the Amman Regional Secretariat under the European Union’s “Centres of Excellence” initiative on CBRN issues.