Surprisingly low number of observation proposals from astronomers for Webb telescope

In preparation for the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope in ’21, the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) that will operate it has begun accepting observation proposals from astronomers, and has apparently discovered that the number of proposals, dubbed the subscription rate, is surprisingly low.

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.

If they got exactly the right number of proposals to precisely use all of the telescope’s observation time, the subscription rate would be 1. An oversubscription rate of 1.4 seems good, but in truth it is tiny compared to Hubble and other space telescopes, and horrible considering the cost of Webb (almost $10 billion, 20x what it was originally budgeted).

The author at the link provides some technical reasons for the low interest, some of which are the fault of the Webb management team (such as a very complicated proposal process) and some that are beyond their control (the Wuhan panic). He also provides suggestions that might help.

Either way, the relatively low interest I think is rooted in Webb’s initial genesis. It was pushed by the cosmological community and its design thus optimized for studying the early universe. Other astronomical fields were pushed aside or given a lower priority so that the telescope does not serve them as well.

The result is that a lot of astronomers have been finding other more appropriate and already functioning telescopes to do their work, bypassing Webb entirely. They are probably also bypassing Webb because it seems foolish to spend the inordinate amount of time putting together a proposal for a telescope a decade behind schedule that carries an enormous risk of failure once it is launched.