FYI: The AIP Bulletin of Science Policy News

Recent Developments on James Webb Space Telescope

Richard M. Jones
Number 120 - September 29, 2011  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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Yesterday a key House appropriator chided the Obama Administration for not specifying what budget reductions it was willing to make to other programs to offset the cost of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).  Frank Wolf (R-VA), chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies wrote to Office of Management and Budget Director Jacob Lew that:

“While acknowledging that substantial cuts will be necessary, the Administration has so far failed to identify a single specific proposal to offset the increase in JWST spending above the levels contained in the President's fiscal year 2012 request. Either no offsets have been proposed because JWST really isn't a top priority, or the Administration is hoping that remaining silent will force Congress to act unilaterally and thereby take sole ownership of the cuts necessitated by the Administration's actions. No matter which explanation is correct, continuing silence is neither fair nor acceptable to the Congress and to members of the scientific community who will be deeply impacted by the ultimate outcome of the JWST debate.”

Wolf’s subcommittee included no funding for the telescope in its version of the FY 2012 bill funding NASA.  The July 20 committee report accompanying its bill explained:

“The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) Independent Comprehensive Review Panel revealed chronic and deeply rooted management problems in the JWST project.  These issues led to the project cost being underestimated by as much as $1,400,000,000 relative to the most recent baseline, and the budget could continue to rise depending on the final launch date determination. Although JWST is a particularly serious example, significant cost overruns are commonplace at NASA, and the Committee believes that the underlying causes will never be fully addressed if the Congress does not establish clear consequences for failing to meet budget and schedule expectations. The Committee recommendation provides no funding for JWST in fiscal year 2012.  The Committee believes that this step will ultimately benefit NASA by setting a cost discipline example for other projects and by relieving the enormous pressure that JWST was placing on NASA’s ability to pursue other science missions.”

A summary of the Review Panel’s 47-page report, released in mid-November 2010, and additional background information is available in last year’s FYI #116.

The Senate Appropriations Committee took a different approach.  The Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Subcommittee, chaired by Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), provided more funding than the Administration requested for the telescope in its version of the FY 2012 funding bill.  The September 15 Senate report stated:

“The Committee strongly supports completion of the James Webb Space Telescope [JWST]. JWST will be 100 times more powerful than the Hubble Space Telescope and is poised to rewrite the physics books. Last year, the Committee asked for an independent assessment of JWST. That assessment, led by Dr. John Casani, found that while JWST is technically sound, NASA has never requested adequate resources to fund its development. As with many other projects, budget optimism led to massive ongoing cost overruns because the project did not have adequate reserves or contingency to address the kinds of technical problems that are expected to arise in a complex, cutting edge project. Without funds, the only other way to deal with problems is to allow the schedule to slip. That slip, in turn, makes the project cost even more, when accounting for the technical costs as well as the cost of maintaining a pool of highly skilled technical labor through the completion of the project.

“In response to the Casani report, NASA has submitted a new baseline for JWST with an overall life cycle cost of $8,700,000,000.  NASA has assured the Committee that this new baseline includes adequate reserves to achieve a 2018 launch without further cost overruns. The Committee intends to hold NASA and its contractors to that commitment, and the bill caps the overall development cost for JWST at $8,000,000,000.”

About two weeks later Chairman Wolf sent the following September 28 letter to OMB Director Lew, copied to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and Office of Science and Technology Policy Director John Holdren:

“Dear Director Lew:

As you are no doubt aware, the House Appropriations Committee's reported fiscal year 2012 bill for Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies contains a proposal to eliminate the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) due to significant management and budgetary problems. Since the unveiling of that bill, the Administration and its supporters in the science community have repeatedly expressed opposition to the House's position. Over the past few months, I have been told many times that JWST's scientific potential must be preserved and that the project is no longer just an astrophysics priority, but a NASA-wide priority.

“In spite of this high level of apparent concern about JWST's status, however, the Administration has been very slow to provide Congress with the information needed to support continued JWST funding. For example, the rebaselining of JWST's budget and schedule was complete for months before it was shared with the Congress, which denied my Subcommittee the opportunity to assess the replan prior to making a fiscal year 2012 funding recommendation for the program.

“With the submission of the baseline, we finally now know that JWST is expected to cost $8.7 billion. That represents an increase of $2.2 billion above the amount calculated by an independent review of the program last year, $3.6 billion above the prior NASA baseline and more than $7 billion above the amount estimated by the decadal survey that first designated JWST as a priority. We also know that implementing this replan without a budget amendment will require substantial cuts in other NASA programs in fiscal year 2012 and the outyears. This fact has not been lost on heliophysics, Earth science and planetary science researchers, who have already begun mobilizing to prevent their own programs from falling victim to JWST's overruns.

“While acknowledging that substantial cuts will be necessary, the Administration has so far failed to identify a single specific proposal to offset the increase in JWST spending above the levels contained in the President's fiscal year 2012 request. Either no offsets have been proposed because JWST really isn't a top priority, or the Administration is hoping that remaining silent will force Congress to act unilaterally and thereby take sole ownership of the cuts necessitated by the Administration's actions. No matter which explanation is correct, continuing silence is neither fair nor acceptable to the Congress and to members of the scientific community who will be deeply impacted by the ultimate outcome of the JWST debate.

“In the coming weeks, the House and Senate will sit down to negotiate final appropriations bills for fiscal year 2012, and the appropriate level of funding for JWST will be one of the most significant issues considered. For us to make a truly informed decision that takes into account both the value of JWST and the value of opportunities that may be precluded by the JWST replan, we must have the offset information. If such information is not provided by the time that conference negotiations begin, I will consider that to be an indication that JWST is no higher in priority than any other existing or planned NASA activity. . . . [Here staff contact information was provided.]

“Thank you for your assistance in this matter.

“Sincerely,

“Frank R Wolf
Chairman
House Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies”

A decision regarding FY 2012 funding for the telescope will be part of closed-door negotiations by Wolf and Mikulski and other appropriators in what is widely expected to be an omnibus funding bill for most if not all federal programs for the new fiscal year that starts on Saturday.  Congressional leaders would like to enact this bill by mid-November, when what will be a series of short term measures are scheduled to expire. 

Richard M. Jones
Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
rjones@aip.org
301-209-3095