Scariness continued

Apologies for radio silence. Somehow I foolishly agreed to teach two new courses simultaneously without noticing the load would peak about the same time as Astronomy Grants Panel Business, and just before finishing a major EU proposal. AAAGGGHHH.

I suppose the obvious news of the day for your friendly neighbourhood AGP chairman is the outcome of STFC’s Grant Mechanism Review. However, that discussion is well underway on Peter’s blog, so I suggest you check it out there.

Instead, I will alert you to a depressing news article from the New York Times. JWST is one third over budget and at least a year behind schedule. In my previous “scary stories“post, our ESA correspondent Mark MacGuttural-noise stressed that this was not requirements creep as Nature had reported. The new report seems to confirm this. Management cock-up is the theory of the day.

As Mark also said, cancelling JWST at this stage would be a bad idea. We would not get the money for something else in astronomy instead. Instead, we maybe just have to let the over-runs eat about half the clear blue water that the Decadal Survey identified as available for a nice new Explorer programme etc. Talk about rock and hard place.

But could it happen ? Worryingly, the splashing of over-runs maybe increases the likelihood of cancellation, because the sunk costs are now a smaller fraction of the total… about 1/3, similar to the state of SSC when the plug was pulled in 1993.

I guess we shouldn’t be smug in Europe. Our Big Thing is ELT, for which the currrent level of ESO subscription will cover about a third. Ahh, but … then we get Brazil to join, which is a fair bit more, and then we ask everybody to just ever so slightly increase their subscriptions, and then … umm… then… national agencies pay for more stuff inside their own countries, and then… err… good lord, is that the time ?

Time share in TMT anyone ?

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17 Responses to Scariness continued

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Regator [Technology], Andy Lawrence. Andy Lawrence said: New blog post (at last…) – JWST scariness continues http://bit.ly/bG1li3 […]

  2. Joe says:

    You mean because TMT is so much more likely to get funded than E-ELT? Not.

  3. andyxl says:

    Joe. Maybe so. Provocativeness aside what I was really thinking was that seen worldwide we are pushing at several fantastic but underfunded ground based projects (ELT, TMT, GSMT, LSST, SKA) and it seems hard to imagine that something won’t crack and then re-gel. But if you can persuade the TMT guys to swallow your losses and join ELT … well that would be nice..

  4. Martin E. says:

    The overruns on JWST are estimated at $1.2B-$1.8B. Subtract that out of the $2.3B that the Decadal assumed would be available for new missions and you get $0.5B-$0.9B. That is nowhere near enough to pay for WFIRST, which the Decadal put at $1.6B. And the Decadal said you can’t downscope WFIRST if it doesn’t then do all 3 science objectives.
    What’s left is then Decadal priority #2 (space, large): an augmented Explorer program. At the low end, the sum remaining is just a bit lower than the Decadal recommended ($0.6B), at the high end, it would allow a bigger Explorer or two. Being a series of missions, the Explorers are well suited to this uncertain budget situation.

  5. andyxl says:

    You sound almost pleased.

  6. Martin E. says:

    Well, not about JWST costing >$6B. But as lead author of the pro-Explorers white paper, yeah, just a bit.

  7. Mark McCaughrean says:

    I’d say that it’s not yet obvious that the additional money required by JWST would necessarily come out of the NASA astrophysics budget, rendering these calculations somewhat premature. Keep in mind that JWST has now been moved into a new division at HQ, separate from astrophysics (although we’re still not quite sure whether it’s outside of SMD), and so whether or not any additional money allocated to JWST will come out of astrophysics and/or SMD.

    For example, the ICRP report makes it clear that an additional $250M is required in both FY11 and FY12, money which the astrophysics budget can’t possibly raise, even by cancelling HST and Chandra. Conversely, giving JWST less money now will only result in the launch being delayed, meaning it’ll cost more in total in the end, reducing the wedge available for new astrophysics missions.

    Of course, I know that the easy response to this is to cancel JWST, but as I’ve said here already, think about what you’d be suggesting. Really: think about it.

    As for smug Europeans, let’s remember that we’ve probably invested somewhere north of €300M on JWST, with an Ariane 5 yet to pay for. We’re into this project in a big way and it’s very important to European astronomers, not just US and Canadian.

    Finally, for what it’s worth, my originally Irish surname has had all vestiges of spitting and grunting removed from its pronunciation in its English manifestation: it’s muh-CORK-run in our family 🙂

  8. andyxl says:

    Mark – I definitely think cancelling JWST could be a very bad thing. It is going to be amazingly good, especially MIRI of course 🙂 Its just that we are afraid that others may not come to the same conclusion

  9. martinstuartelvis says:

    I agree. If JWST is cancelled it’s not at all clear that Congress will trust astronomers with that much money ever again. It’s the funding wall that particle physics hit in the US with the SSC cancellation.
    But, if JWST stays, its very hard to see 2x$250M coming out of another piece of NASA, and Congress is not at all in the mood to throw cash at anything right now. If they did, it would be for jobs, not telescopes.
    Hard to see a good outcome here.

    • Mark McCaughrean says:

      I agree with what you’re saying in general, Martin, except that telescopes _are_ jobs; highly-skilled jobs in aerospace in key states and congressional districts. The money is going nowhere except California, Maryland, Colorado, and many other states.

      Of course, the perception is that they money could be better spent on other things (health, military, schools, whatever), but the reality is more complicated.

      • Martin E. says:

        True, Mark, but those aren’t the sort of jobs the Tea Party people are talking about, so a special move to save perceived-as-elite jobs could be hard to raise. I take Sen. Mikulski’s ordering up of this review as a warning sign; she has been a great supporter of astrophysics at NASA, esp. Hubble, and for her to raise JWST costs as an issue means that almost everyone else in the Senate would be much more sceptical. But politics is a highly unpredictable business, and one for which a physics training is not helpful. That is, we’ll just have to wait and see.

  10. andyxl says:

    The report is now covered in a Nature News article. There is button labelled “blogs that link to this article” but of course I am not on it because I wrote about it first…

  11. andyxl says:

    Another update : this Science article covers the background nicely and has some interesting new quotes. Roger B is shocked it seems. You don’t hear that often from a man of the world like Roger.

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