Space Telescope Science Institute’s Telescope Allocation Committee outlines the target selection procedure for the next cycle of Webb observations, sparking celebration among astronomers worldwide.

What is the purpose of the peer-review process?

“On May 10, the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope’s science operations center, announced the scientific program for Cycle 2, the second year of regular operations.” This statement marked the end of a peer-review process to pick the most scientifically compelling programs, which began on January 27 with the submission of observation and archival proposals.

What is the purpose of Archival projects?

“For each year of regular operations, STScI intends to issue a Call for General Observer and Archival Proposals from the international astronomical community in order to solicit ideas for new observations and archival studies to be carried out in the following year.” Archival projects seek funding to study previously collected data, establish theoretical models to understand data, and/or provide scientific tools to aid in data analysis. More than 5,450 scientists from 52 nations, including the United States, ESA (European Space Agency) member states, and Canada, submitted a record-breaking 1,600 ideas for Cycle 2. The proposals ranged from solar system bodies, exoplanets, supernova remnants, and merging neutron stars to neighboring and distant galaxies, supermassive black holes at galaxies’ centers, and the large-scale structure of the cosmos. The submitted applications requested more than 35,000 hours of telescope time, greatly exceeding the 5,000 hours available for allocation.

How does the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) select the programs to be carried out by the Telescope Allocation Committee (TAC)?

“STScI recruits hundreds of members of the international astronomical community to serve on the Telescope Allocation Committee (TAC) to select the programs that will be carried out.” Each reviewer is assigned to a relevant panel that corresponds to their scientific knowledge. Dual-Anonymous Peer Review (DAPR) is a peer-review procedure in which the proposers do not know who is assessing the proposals and the reviewers do not know who prepared the proposals. STScI implemented DAPR in 2016 to support the Hubble Space Telescope Cycle 26 TAC and discovered that it reduced a previously observed discrepancy in the proposal selection rate for male and female investigators and encouraged many more students to submit for telescope time.

How does the STScI JWST Science Policies Group handle the sorting of proposals?

“After proposals are submitted, the STScI JWST Science Policies Group sorts them by type and/or size, as well as a scientific category.” External panelists judge very small proposals asynchronously, whereas larger programs are reviewed by discussion panels. Each panel is allotted telescope time to which it can recommend observation programs.

What criteria are used by reviewers to grade each proposal?

“Reviewers are asked to grade each proposal using three criteria:

  1.  Impact within the subfield,
  2. Impact outside the subfield
  3. Suitability for the observatory

” Proposals for external panels are ranked based on provided grades. Because there is not enough time to discuss all of the submitted proposals on discussion panels, proposals are first triaged using submitted grades. The discussion panelists analyze the strengths and shortcomings of all proposals that pass triage and regrade and re-rank the proposals at the TAC conference. The ideas with the highest rankings are suggested for the allocation of telescope time and/or money. The panel chairs also receive and incorporate expert opinions from the community and their discussion panels for the Large, Treasury, and Legacy Archive proposals. Furthermore, reviewers provide input to proposers outlining perceived strengths and weaknesses.

What is the significance of the observations becoming publicly available in the archive?

“The STScI director is the allocating official for this mission.” As a result, the TAC’s recommendations are all advisory to the director. STScI notifies proposers of the outcome of their applications and begins implementation of the awarded observations after the director authorizes the programs. The newly announced Cycle 2 program comprises a lot of fascinating and ground-breaking science. By reading the abstracts of the selected projects, you can learn more about the breadth of research fields and issues to be answered with Webb’s observations. Eventually, all of the observations in the approved programs will be publicly available in the archive, allowing for additional fresh discoveries that the original proposers may not have anticipated.”