Friday, July 15, 2011

What is the relevance of the JWST?

The James Web Space Telescope, the succesor of the Hubble Space Telescope is now under the very serious treat of termination due to budget cuts. The story goes like this: last week, the House Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations Subcommittee recommended the cancellation of the JWST project. This was followed when the full House Science, Space and Technology Committee approved the subcommittee's plan.

From a scientific standpoint this is a total disaster. We need the JWST if we are going to push the frontiers of current research to an epoch where the first stars and galaxies formed. The scientific case has already been well explained by Julianne Dalcanton in Cosmic Variance so I don't need to repeat it again.

But, from the point of view of the average Joe in the street, what is the justification for pouring truckloads of money in the JWST? Maybe the most poetic justification reads something like it will enhance our comprehension of the origin of cosmos and the existence of life in it. But nonetheless, I find that, while completely true, this kind of answers are easy to dodge by any opportunistic politician who wants to present himself as the "hero of the community" by "saving the hard earned money of the community from falling into this resources swamp". 

Well, this is utter nonsense. Let me tell you why. The principal outcome of massive scientific collaborations is not a stream of papers with the latest and greatest results about fundamental questions but a stream of highly trained people who goes and contributes to the society in countless ways. I can not really estimate how many people went on to get a PhD based on Hubble's data or research started by Hubble's observation and while a few of them remain in the academia most have gone into all other corners of life. Many of them have joined big corporations or started their own corporation and contributed to the development of many technologies that are now commercialized and now create jobs for the people producing and manufacturing them. That is not to mention the secondary sources of income that are created when this people go and spend their income. So please keep in mind that by shooting down the JWST you are not only shooting down the few professional astronomers in your district but actually the training of some of the most skilled people in the society, the kind of people who will later produce some of the best sources of income available in society.

If you are in the USA, please take five minutes of your time and contact your representative to keep the JWST alive, the vote of the congress is still required to terminate this project. 

If history can give us some clues as what can happen, let me mention the Superconducting Supercollider, the project that was supposed to lead experimental high energy in the late 20th and early 21st century. After its cancellation not only we as scientists remain with doubts about fundamental physics as the Higgs boson or superpartners but also the region of Texas where it was going to be built entered into a local recession and furthermore, now the advance of the field is led by the CERN in Europe, ending with decades of US dominance of the field. Please don't allow this to happen again.


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