About this ArticleN. Reid (inr[at]stsci.edu)
NASA Astrophysics missions generally provide funding to the U.S. community to support exploitation of their scientific potential. Different missions use different mechanisms to award grants or contracts to individual programs. For Hubble Space Telescope (HST) programs, investigators construct a budget proposal that describes the work to be undertaken, including associated expenditures such as travel and publications. This provides a means to tailor the funding request to support the work undertaken by U.S. investigators, taking into account who will carry out that work (e.g., student, postdoctoral fellow, senior scientist). Budget proposals are reviewed by a Financial Review Committee (FRC) with members drawn from the user community. The FRC matches the proposed costed effort to the science goals described in the proposal reviewed by the Telescope Allocation Committee (TAC). They assess level of effort and the activities described to determine whether they are reasonable, allowable, and allocable. They flag effort that is outside the scope of the original program and/or carries excessive cost. In most cases, any adjustments are relatively small, but the review can result in significant reductions for individual proposals. The original intention was to use an FRC to determine funding for the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) Cycle 1 General Observer/Archive Research (GO/AR) programs, but the process hit some turbulence.
The deadline to submit Cycle 1 budgets for accepted proposals was May 20, 2021. At that time, NASA had not finalized the available grant funding. Consequently, the instructions to proposers were to specify the resources needed to achieve the program science goals. The community obliged, submitting 268 proposals requesting total funding of $99.1 million. This proved to be approximately a factor of three higher than the funding level planned initially by NASA.
The Institute and the JWST Project discussed the situation with the JWST Users Committee (JSTUC) at their June 2021 meeting. Budget reductions to meet the proposed funding constraints would be extremely difficult to achieve through the standard FRC process. However, it was clearly important to use the extensive information provided by the community to verify the level of support actually required to achieve the TAC-approved science goals. The JSTUC recommended recruiting a committee of community members to assess a representative subset of the submitted budget proposals for that purpose. There were also concerns about familiarity with the process for non-HST users. Therefore, the committee should also investigate whether there were inequities in the process, particularly those stemming from inexperience with budget preparations for an FRC-style review.
The Cycle 1 Grants Task Force
STScI constituted the JWST Cycle 1 Grants Task Force, comprising 10 community members already recruited for the Cycle 1 FRC together with three representatives from the JSTUC. STScI Grants Administration identified a random subset of 25% of the proposals for review. The proposals were rank-ordered by total budget request, and every fourth proposal selected. The sample includes AR, Theory, GO, and Pure Parallel programs. The Task Force met virtually from July 20–23, 2021, reviewing individual proposals over the first three days and providing general feedback on the final day. A member of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center's JWST Project Science team attended as an observer for NASA. The Task Force followed the standard FRC process: Each budget proposal had a primary and secondary reviewer who provided independent assessments; the Task Force discussed each proposal to arrive at a consensus assessment; if necessary, individual activities that had excessive costs or were beyond the scope of the original goals were flagged for reduction. The reductions were aggregated as a scale factor for each proposal.
Many proposals assessed by the Task Force were assessed as well matched to the required work. However, other proposals, particularly the large-scale proposals, were judged to require significant reductions (in some cases, a factor of two), usually reflecting duplicative or poorly justified work effort. As a matter of fairness, the Task Force volunteered to review all proposals submitting budget requests in excess of $500,000. Those assessments were completed on August 27 and September 3, 2021. In total, the Task Force reviewed 102 of the 268 Cycle 1 budget proposals (38%).
The primary conclusion reached by the Task Force is that, overall, approximately 70% of the funding requested in the proposals reviewed is justified by work required to achieve the science goals. The Task Force emphasized that funding at less than half this level would disproportionately impact the scientific productivity of U.S. researchers, with science not just deferred, but lost. Partly in response to this recommendation, NASA has increased the Cycle 1 funding allocation substantially to $60 million, approximately twice the funding available in a typical Hubble cycle.
The Task Force considered the questions on equity raised by the JSTUC. They found little evidence that proposers who lacked past experience with HST were disadvantaged significantly by the review process. Almost all proposals at least matched the scope and work efforts required to achieve the science goals. There are similar proposals that request different resources, but those differences reflect different requirements, generally who is doing the work—U.S. versus foreign investigators, senior versus junior scientists. There is no simple correlation between instrument mode and the complexity of the data reduction and analysis. There was strong endorsement of the FRC-style review as the most equitable process in accounting for the unique characteristics of each proposal.
The final report from the Task Force is available online.
Final Budget Adjustments
The Task Force assessments demonstrate that a full FRC review would not reconcile the community requests with the GO/AR funding allocation for Cycle 1; further adjustments are required. Fortunately, the Task Force provided guidance on a basis for those adjustments:
- Preserve foundational funding—cutting all programs equally could render some of the smaller programs infeasible;
- Prioritize support for personnel—travel and publication costs should be capped;
- Eliminate third year funding unless clearly justified—JWST programs are generally expected to require two years of effort; the period of performance is set at three years to allow appropriate phasing of that effort within the longer timeframe.
Those recommendations chart a course to developing a formulaic approach that can determine appropriate adjustments for each proposal.
The Task Force reviewed only a subset of the Cycle 1 budget proposals. Identifying an equitable process to define a budget that serves as the anchor for each program is an essential first step. The reference budgets were set as follows:
- Travel costs were capped at $12,000 for all programs;
- Publication costs were capped at $7,000 for all programs;
- All programs with budget requests in excess of $500,000 were assessed by the Task Force, and their scaling factor is used to determine the reference budget for those programs;
- For smaller programs with Task Force assessments, their scaling is applied if 70% or less (i.e., more than a 30% reduction in the submitted budget); for other programs, the submitted request is taken as the reference budget;
- For smaller programs not reviewed by the Task Force, work extending into a third year was eliminated unless clearly justified; otherwise, the submitted request is adopted as the reference budget.
Combined, the total reference budget is ~$75 million, ~20% above the funding level. The offset is sufficiently large that further cuts must be shared across all programs. We follow a progressive model in applying the necessary cuts (see Fig. 1):
- The initial $70,000 in each program is subject to no adjustments; this sets the foundational funding and limits the impact on the smallest programs.
- The 20 AR programs span a limited range of budget requests; all those programs are scaled to ~80% of the reference value, consistent with the overall funding offset.
- GO programs account for the vast majority of Cycle 1 programs and span a wide range of parameter space. Rather than scaling based on the total budget, we include the funding rate ($/hour, measured against the total charged time in the TAC proposal) as a parameter in scaling the budget. Those values span a wide range, as Figure 1 shows. This is consistent with experience from Hubble programs and reflects the individuality of programs, as emphasized by the Task Force. Programs at or below the average funding rate (~$14,000/hour) were scaled by a single factor; programs with above average rates had proportionately higher scaling rates.
- Pure parallel programs are considered separately from standard GO programs since parallels are implemented on a contingent basis. GO programs will be completed; parallel programs do not have that guarantee. Pure parallels require the availability of suitable scheduling opportunities from prime programs; their implementation cannot impact the prime observations; and, for JWST, they compete for those opportunities with calibration programs. Moreover, significant concerns have emerged regarding the data volume limits that will constrain for JWST observations; those limits will have a significant impact on the availability of parallel opportunities. As a consequence, there is significantly higher risk associated with pure parallel programs and the budgets are scaled accordingly. Even so, the three Cycle 1 pure parallel programs are allocated ~40% of their reference budgets for a total of approximately $1.2 million, 2% of the GO/AR budget. This is a higher proportion than in typical HST cycles.
Figure 2 shows the results of applying the adjustments, plotting the results as fractions of the reference budget for each program: the allocation for 207 of the 268 programs (77%) is at least 80% of the reference budget.
Both the Task Force recommendations and the subsequent adjustment process were discussed with the JSTUC at their October 4, 2021 meeting. The JSTUC endorsed both the recommendations and the process described above.
The JWST Project notified STScI Grants Administration of the Cycle 1 contract value on October 22, 2021, and formal notification letters were sent to Principal Investigators and/or Administrative PIs on November 1. Those letters provide a not-to-exceed value for each program; PIs have full discretion on how they allocate that funding (they are not constrained by caps on travel and publications, for example), albeit with the requirement that the expenditure must be allowable. Revised budgets are due on February 25, 2022.
Determining the funding allocations for Cycle 1 GO/AR programs triggered a much more complex process than might have been anticipated, and the results evoke a mixed reaction. On the one hand, total funding for U.S. scientists to exploit JWST's potential is close to the recommendations made by the JWST Advisory Committee (JSTAC) in 2015. On the other, this level of funding may not be sufficient to cover the wide range of science investigations made possible by JWST's unparalleled capabilities. This may be the new normal. We should also acknowledge that JWST is an international mission, and funding to support research by foreign scientists generally does not come from JWST-specific sources. NASA anticipates maintaining funding at Cycle 1 levels in future cycles, so this should provide a more stable reference frame going forward.
From the STScI perspective, there is much that we can do to improve the overall process. Both the Task Force and the community have provided clear feedback in that respect.
- We need to provide better documentation for the community to help them navigate the budget process. That documentation should include examples of best practices, particularly with regard to constructing budget narratives.
- We need to set funding expectations for different proposal categories.
- We need to simplify the budget proposals themselves; for example, travel, and publications might be limited from the beginning and specified as single line items rather than requiring detailed specifications.
- We need to streamline the review process—the Task Force devoted five days to reviewing 100 proposals, and we expect ~300+ proposals in future cycles.
The Institute will work with the JSTUC to ensure smoother sailing as we approach JWST's Cycle 2.