Should Webb telescope’s data be open to all?


The $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has been observing for less than 4 months, but already a storm is brewing over access to its data. Webb images and spectra all end up in an archive at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, yet most of them aren’t freely available until 1 year after the data were collected. This gives the researchers who proposed the observations time to analyze them and publish results without being scooped.

But some astronomers question the practice, arguing that data from federally funded projects should be free for all to use. NASA, Webb’s primary backer, is facing an open data push from the White House and may soon end the restriction. Having so much Webb data locked away “doesn’t pass the smell test. It’s just not right,” says astronomer Garth Illingworth of the University of California, Santa Cruz, who from 2009 to 2017 chaired a committee advising STScI on Webb’s future science operations.

He and other proponents of an open data policy also make a practical argument. They say so-called proprietary time prevents other astronomers from using fresh data to shape their own observing plans, reducing the efficiency of a highly sought-after instrument that has consumed billions of dollars of public money.

But others say instant access to data may clash with pressing efforts to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion in astronomy. Scientists at smaller institutions, many of which serve underrepresented groups, may need more time for analysis compared with the well-resourced teams at established research universities. Eliminating proprietary time could “put people in a position where they can’t succeed,” says astronomer Mercedes Lopez-Morales of Harvard University, chair of the influential JWST Users Committee, which recently urged NASA to maintain a data embargo period but reduce it to 6 months.

To find a way forward, STScI will begin to poll more than 12,000 astronomers later this month about their attitudes to proprietary time. “There are mixed feelings in the community,” says Neill Reid, STScI’s associate director for science. “There’s definitely a feeling that open access is a good way to go, but without disadvantaging [some observers]. There’s not one size that fits all.”

Astronomers have long been pioneers in putting data into open archives for anyone to use. Typically, data from automated survey telescopes, which systematically scan the sky night after night, are deposited straightaway. But proprietary time remains a tradition at general purpose telescopes, which give astronomers whose observing proposals are chosen exclusive access to their data for as long as 18 months.

After often-heated debate, the Webb advisory committee that Illingworth chaired before the telescope’s launch urged that its proprietary period last just 6 months. Any longer, the committee concluded, and most of the data collected during the first year of observing, known as cycle 1, would be unavailable to astronomers trying to plan what to look for in cycle 2, or even some of cycle 3. For a mission then expected to only last 5 years, that was unsupportable in the view of some committee members.

In recent years, NASA has reduced the proprietary time for the Hubble Space Telescope and the Chandra X-ray Observatory to 6 months. But it did not do the same for Webb, in part because the academic teams that built its four instruments and the European and Canadian space agencies that partnered in the project had 12 months’ proprietary time written into their agreements.

Private eye

Most astronomers using the James Webb Space Telescope get a yearlong “proprietary” period to exclusively analyze data from observing projects. About 75% of Webb’s first year of observations is not immediately open for use.

graphic of JWST data usage

Webb planners did, however, adopt the committee’s suggestion to provide immediate access to a key subset of data: 500 hours of observations made during the first 5 months of cycle 1, covering all Webb’s key science areas and employing all its instruments and observing modes. This Early Release Science (ERS) program amounts to about 5% of cycle 1’s total observing time (see table, above) and its data are put in the archive immediately, providing some material for scientists devising cycle 2 proposals.

Webb’s successful launch has also tempered the data-access debate somewhat because it required fewer course corrections than expected, leaving a fuel reserve that could extend the telescope’s lifetime and allow more time for observing.

But proprietary time still galls many astronomers. On 15 November, STScI will put out the call for cycle 2 proposals, for observations to start in July 2023. Although the ERS data are helping many plan future observations, most cycle 1 data are still locked up and some will remain so until the second half of 2024. NASA is also under pressure from the White House. On 25 August, the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy ordered departments and agencies to move toward making the results of all federally funded research freely and immediately available by 2026.

In response, NASA asked the JWST Users Committee, which was meeting that same day, to look again at the telescope’s proprietary time. It, too, recommended moving to 6 months. A year “won’t fly anymore,” Lopez-Morales says. But the committee recognized that its members, 12 senior astronomers, may have a biased view, so they asked STScI to consult with the wider community.

Mark McCaughrean, an astronomer with the European Space Agency, says the 12-month embargo should remain in place because it helps level the field. Astronomers at small universities often shoulder heavy teaching loads and other responsibilities. If their Webb observations were publicly released straight away, they could be scooped by teams at large, well-resourced research institutions before they had a chance to analyze the data over the summer, for example. The situation is trickier still for European astronomers who don’t get automatic funding for postdocs and other expenses linked to winning time on a space telescope as U.S. astronomers do. “We should be aiming to improve diversity by removing structural biases against smaller institutions, early-career researchers, and historically disadvantaged groups: Fixed proprietary periods can help with this,” McCaughrean says.

Illingworth says underrepresented groups could be helped by making proprietary time optional, with space in the proposal form for researchers to request it and explain their need. Marcia Rieke of the University of Arizona, principal investigator of Webb’s near-infrared camera, favors the opposite: giving everyone proprietary time with the expectation that those who don’t need it will give it up, or at least release their data when they publish. Proprietary time “encourages people to do a good job analyzing data,” she says.

“It’s complicated,” Lopez-Morales concedes. On the one hand, she says, reducing proprietary time could be “in conflict with [NASA’s] other efforts” to widen the pool of astronomers. Yet instant access to data means the many groups who are unsuccessful at applying for observing time—in cycle 1, the rejection rate was 75%—can still get a crack at using the data. “We need to see what the community wants,” Lopez-Morales says, “and we will advocate for that.”

Michael New, NASA’s deputy associate director for research, says even if the community comes down in favor of 6 months, that will be a stepping stone to fully removing proprietary time. A NASA policy, now being finalized, will mandate instant access to instrument data in line with White House policy. New says the Webb agreements with other space agencies contain clauses allowing proprietary time to be reduced once the telescope is operating and discussions to do so are already taking place. “It’s not if we do it, but when,” he says. “Will everyone be happy? No, but we will listen to all sides.”

NASA is already working to provide support for researchers who will be disadvantaged, New adds. If some are underresourced, “solve that problem, don’t preserve proprietary time.”


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