Science 2.0 favorite Lawrence Krauss of ASU tackled the James Webb Space Telescope issue on the Richard Dawkins website and a commenter there linked to my rationalization that canceling it might be okay, with the hasty disclaimer that he does not agree with what I write - the Dawkins site moderators, and perhaps Dawkins himself, have made their distaste for anyone outside the echo chamber well known so perhaps his rapid disavowal was necessary, though it seems odd Krauss would have the same concern, since he is an outreach guy rather than a religion basher worried about his site being overrun - but really, what is there to disagree with?

Krauss is a bold communicator with fascinating insights, among the best - but his stuff in this case is just a rehash of the same weak arguments everyone who thinks no funding should ever be canceled already used and doesn't adequately address issues I mentioned.   The nebulous 'leadership' argument is invoked, for example, but really, who gives a crap about leadership?   Is the work of any scientist really impacted because Europe supposedly has leadership in physics now that they have a machine with higher luminosity than the US has?  Really, sound that out.  Higher luminosity means leadership.  Really?  

There are plenty of mysteries in physics that can be solved that don't involve higher and higher energy and what happens if there is no Higgs boson?  Will Europe not have physics leadership because they spent $15 billion to find out we now don't know what to find?   How much should a country spend to have leadership?   If you don't like the military budget of the US, then you may agree leadership for leadership sake alone has less and less value as costs rise.

He also invokes 'first light' and maybe Dawkins readers are not as tuned into science as the Science 2.0 kind so that will fly.   The James Webb Space Telescope will not see first light, but it will let us see 250-400 million years after the Big Bang whereas the Hubble Space Telescope sees back to only 800 million years.   It has a value, to be sure, but that value is finite.   After it exceeds its value the question becomes, is that the only project left in astronomy, the way some particle physicists advocating the LHC insisted the Higgs was the only mystery left to solve (or, to get out of the physical sciences, biologists who told Congress for decades they could cure cancer)?  Or is the additional funding JWST would need actually going to crowd out other projects? We know that answer, astronomers not working on JWST expressed it for years about the Webb Telescope overruns and what it was costing space science overall.

Finally, he invokes the "it is a drop in the bucket compared to X" argument.   This one really bugs people who pay taxes.  The space shuttle cost $200 billion and was generally an overhyped failure - many agree on that now but no one said it every year when it needed funding, the shuttle was always essential for science, we were told, except it did practically nothing for science and what it did could have been done by expendable rockets sending up robots.   'We wasted a lot on other projects claimed to be important so it's okay to waste some on this' is terrible reasoning.

Most oddly is this argument, which I have seen nowhere else:
But the potential loss of the JWST is far greater than just science. It is hard to think of a single NASA project, exceeding even the Mars Rovers, that has captured the imagination of the public, and in particular children, than the images of the cosmos provided by the Hubble Space Telescope.
If we want kids to see pretty pictures and go into science, we have to spend $7 billion?   I agree the Hubble has been valuable, just like the Tevatron has been valuable in physics - but the Tevatron value has not meant we needed to have a blank check for the SSC, especially when it was discovered no one knew how long it would take and if it would work at all.

And that's the issue Krauss doesn't seem to address.  He says the JWST is, like he says about the SSC, "Well on the way to completion and after several billion" dollars spent but he is only half right in the comparison.  The SSC did spend a lot of money but was nowhere near even getting started much less being well on its way to completion.  It was a legendary boondoggle so outrageous a Democrat Congress and a Democrat president in love with spending money canceled it.

The JWST is 70% complete - the easy 70% - but there are substantial engineering obstacles NASA has no idea how to overcome or how long it will take (the last analysis was demanded by a Democrat because of new overruns and time frames to finish a year ago) and they have shown they are incapable of managing a Big Science project today.  NASA has become a job works program happy with a joint confidence level of 50%.

Pres. Obama also canceled the Constellation project for many of the same reasons.  The president has no confidence in NASA, Congress has no confidence in NASA.  Astronomers love NASA, the space program may be why they went into science so that is understandable, but they love it because they have never known anything better.

If you can ignore the tiresome "I blame the tea party" commenters who infect the place at the Dawkins site, a few people have some keen insights into what has gone wrong.  It's easy to see, to outsiders.   Talk to old NASA guys and then ask younger ones about how NASA operates today - they know what the problem is; budgets are underestimated and benefits are overestimated , with the goal being to get enough money spent it becomes too expensive to cancel - exactly the argument Krauss makes as to why JWST should go on.

That said, if it isn't going to ruin space science funding for other projects, I'd like to see it get built - but canceling it may be the only way NASA learns to make realistic projections.