The work of the JASON defense advisory panel — better known as “the JASONs” — tends to be taken quite seriously. Certainly, the conclusions of JASON’s scientists on issues related to nuclear warheads are followed closely in the arms control community. For local examples, see here, here, and here.
Fairly or not, JASON is seen differently than, say, the Defense Science Board. It only seems right to ask why. After all, the same U.S. defense establishment (broadly speaking) foots the bill. And if it were just a matter of having a snappy name, then “The Legion of Science” presumably would have been taken already. (Then again, maybe it already has been.)
One answer, which appeared in the letters pages of the 17 December 2009 issue of Nature, is given by Steven M. Block, Professor of Biology and Applied Physics at Stanford. Critiquing a proposal for a new scientific defense advisory body in Britain, Block points to four (missing) ingredients that he considers essential to JASON’s success.
First, JASON members have security clearances. Without them, Block writes, “Controversial conclusions of reports could be dismissed by government officials with the all-too-familiar refrain: ‘You wouldn’t advise that if you knew what we know.’”
Second, the JASON members’ own research at their home institutions isn’t funded by the sponsoring organization, which helps to avoid conflicts of interest.
Third, the group chooses its own members. Block doesn’t mention it, but back in 2002, JASON parted ways with its then-sponsoring agency, DARPA, over this principle.
Fourth, there has been considerable continuity of membership over the years, creating a strong “corporate memory.”
As an organization, the JASONs have earned credibility on a wide range of security-related topics over the years. The long-standing working relationships forged among the JASON members rank among its most significant strengths. The lack of direct professional ties to government sponsors fosters impartiality. The collective experience gained from working on so many different kinds of problem, combined with the individual credentials of its scientifically diverse membership, make the JASONs one of the few government advisory groups that can plausibly be called independent.
But of course, the name doesn’t hurt, either!