Wednesday, December 30, 2020

JWST has a problem all right

The stats of the James Webb space telescope cycle 1 proposal round came in the other day. In summary: an over subscription rate of 1:4. A little less even. 

There was immediate spin how the stats were a good thing. Enthusiasm from around the globe! So many investigators! But that does not change that the 1:4 oversubscription is a disappointment. If I were part of the project, this would and should worry me. 

Remember the collapse of the Arecibo telescope. Ran on a budget of 17m$/yr?  That also has a 1:4 subscription rate (source: › ugradPDFThe Arecibo Radiotelescope - Cornell University) a few years ago. If your shiny new telescope that hands out grants with their data has the same subscription rate as a 60 year old radio telescope that doesn’t, you have a problem. 

Let’s go over what the issues are. 

JWST has the Herschel problem: the lifetime is inherently limited by consumables. 11 years and change. So it is paramount all the science that can be done with it is envisaged now and proposed. The pressure is on. But the Herschel community only figured out what it wanted by cycle 3... this means there may be some science I can do with JWST but I don't quite know how yet. That's a problem for cycle-1 but should go away soon.

JWST has a hype problem: for years we now have heard it was going to be revolutionary. And soon. This led to predictions of an oversubscription rate of 20:1 etc. Especially since much of the first year goes to GTO! Better get ready! We tried. But apparently could not think of that much. 

JWST is a technical Matterhorn: The modes of the instruments are myriad and very complex. Instead of a science case (phase 1) and a technical (phase 2) it’s all combined. This makes every proposal an enormous time and energy investment. The project thought they could get around that by documentation and hype (see above). Get started early! Go to a workshop! But in the end the complexity made it similar to a radio telescope: only the initiated can realistically propose. This issue did not completely go away especially with the last problem.

JWST has a timing problem: oh hey there was a pandemic. Everyone is trying to do their normal work with 10-20% extra effort for every damn thing. So there was less time to work on proposals. But it also had the poorest timing: a deadline on literally the last day of everyone’s semester (ok in the USA) after announcing the opportunity effectively at the start of the semester from hell. And this was the second cycle 1 deadline. It’s getting harder to believe that the project will stick to the timeline this time. Most astronomers expected a third “cycle 1” deadline. After JWST slips even more due to the pandemic etc. It won’t be called that of course. It’ll be the first“mid-cycle” or something. But in reality it’ll be cycle 1c. 

The JWST project could simply not imagine that we did not have any science for it. It was the most amazing thing ever. So poor timing, making the proposals technically hard, a pandemic semester would all be overcome by the community. This is not unique to the JWST. You can always add to an academic’s workload. Until you can’t. 

This is also the reason I don’t expect the gender stats on cycle 1 to be released. Those will be too embarrassing. Men got to put them in but all the women had child care and school from home dumped on them. 

But it will get more competitive later! I hear you say. Different prediction from earlier. This was the first cycle. Much was taken up by guaranteed time and early science projects. Maybe. But when WFC3 was installed, demand for it peaked in the first cycle it was offered. True for every new HST instrument. And this is a whole package of cool new instruments. What gives? At this rate we could be done in year 4... ok some new ideas and follow up and barely end up filling the observatory's lifetime. If that might be time to update the resume. 

So what can JWST do to improve the numbers. 

  1. Split phase 1 and 2. This was a lesson learned from the early Hubble proposals. ALMA want through something similar. 
  2. Smarter timing. It’s not just your own internal capacity that’s in play here. Make sure your customers can do the work. 
  3. Less modes. Honestly. Get me a spectrum of this thing over there. Don’t make it harder than that. More templates etc for phase 2. 
  4. Stop thinking of this as an observatory. Despite all the instrument modes, it’s a much narrower science range. Does high redshift and planetary formation. Throw in some AGN science. That’s...sorta it? Spitzer wavelengths but high resolution is not as wide a field as Hubble covers. Maybe we'll get excited about brown dwarfs suddenly. 
  5. Organize a legacy survey mode. No not the “survey” mode but legacy proposals like ANGST and PHAT. ERS is filing that niche but JWST is already the same amount of time away from end-of-mission as HST was when the call went out for legacy. Time to organize some conferences and think up must do science. Eg it’s pretty clear that all the nearby known planets will need to be done. And all the CANDELS fields. Just do them. Make scheduling all that less of a headache. 
  6. Build up an archive. Ok I am biased here. But have this thing snap NIR high-resolution images whenever it can means there is something to scour for New Stuff. Something to combine with Roman or Euclid. 

All this comes from a place of worry for me. I like JWST and much more so the people working on it. I really want it to succeed. If it doesn’t hit the ball out of the park next cycle (which will still be pre-launch let’s be real here) it will be in big trouble. 

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