Who gets to use NASA's James Webb Space Telescope? Astronomers work to fight bias
With the James Webb Space Telescope safely deployed, many scientists want to use it. To minimize the effect of unconscious biases, they go through a process developed for the Hubble Space Telescope.
A MARTINEZ, HOST:
Now that the James Webb Space Telescope has finished unfolding itself in space, it'll undergo months of fine tuning to get it ready to, you know, do some science. And lots of scientists are hoping to use this powerful $10 billion instrument. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports on a recent effort to make sure that every researcher gets a fair shot.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Space telescopes are a rare, precious resource, and NASA wants to get the best science out of them, the best bang for its buck. So if an astronomer has an idea for where to point a telescope to study black holes or planets in other solar systems or whatever, there's a way to submit a proposal.
NEILL REID: Anyone from across the world can lead a proposal, can be on a proposal - Australia, China, Japan, Russia anywhere.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's Neill Reid. He's with the Space Telescope Science Institute. It's the science operations center for the iconic Hubble Space Telescope and now the new James Webb Space Telescope. He says the demands to use space telescopes is so high, the majority of proposals get rejected for Hubble every year.
REID: We typically get something like a thousand, 1,100 proposals. And only the top 20% of those proposals will actually make it through to the telescope to get time.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Reid says a while back, someone asked him, does the institute know if there's any difference in the acceptance rate for Hubble proposals led by women and proposals led by men?
REID: We didn't at that point because we don't actually collect that information.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: So Reid and his colleagues did the best study they could, just using the gender suggested by the name of each proposal's lead scientist. That person is called the principal investigator, or PI.
REID: And we came up with an answer that there was this systematic difference. Proposals led by male PIs do better than proposals led by female PIs.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: The difference wasn't huge, but it was consistent for every year they looked, going back 16 years. Clearly, something was going on. The institute brought in a consultant, Stefanie Johnson of the University of Colorado. She and her research partner sat in on the committees that evaluated and ranked proposals to use Hubble. And what they noticed is that a lot of the discussion centered on who was making a proposal.
STEFANIE JOHNSON: There might be a question about it like, oh, you know, this seems really good, but can they actually do this? Like, are they sure? A lot of times, there's someone who will speak up in the room and say, you know, I know this person. They will figure it out because that's who they are.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: This means certain people got an extra leg up. So Johnson and her colleagues recommended making the review process completely blind. The evaluation committees wouldn't get to see any names, and all proposals would be written in a way that made it impossible to know who the proposal was from. The institute surveyed the astronomy community to see what it thought of this potential change.
LOU STROLGER: And you can imagine the knee-jerk reaction was actually pretty polar.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Lou Strolger works at the Space Telescope Science Institute. He says about half of the astronomers who responded were in favor of the idea. These tended to be younger people and women. The other half had objections
STROLGER: They ranged from, you know, this will totally upset how good science is done to, you know, you'll basically fool yourself into, you know, giving time to people who don't know what you're doing.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Still, the institute plowed ahead. In 2018, it did its first truly blinded review for Hubble proposals. Astrophysicist Priya Natarajan of Yale University was there. She says occasionally, someone would try to guess who was behind a proposal.
PRIYA NATARAJAN: But the buy-in from the community was so tremendous that there would be other people on the panels who would say, oh, no, no, come on. Let's stick to the science.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: And sticking to the science had a real impact. That year, for the first time ever, the acceptance rate for proposals led by women was higher than the acceptance rate for proposals led by men.
NATARAJAN: I was stunned that there was an effect right away.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: And when reviewers were finally allowed to see who had submitted a proposal that they had just deemed worthy of telescope time, Lou Strolger says they never objected that the person wasn't up to the job, although they often were surprised.
STROLGER: There were some, oh, that was not at all who I thought it was sort of reactions.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Data from the last few years suggest that this process continues to help narrow the gap between acceptance rates for men and women. And it may have improved fairness in other ways, too. Strolger says there's been a dramatic rise in approvals for first-time users, astronomers who have never used Hubble before.
STROLGER: It went from something like a dozen per year to, you know, 50 per year.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: All of this convinced NASA officials to adopt this approach for other space telescopes, too. And although the brand-new James Webb Space Telescope has only gone through one round of proposal selection, there's already signs that this anonymous process is working. And that's important because a lot of astronomers are hoping to use Webb. The first call for proposals drew in more than a thousand from 44 countries. Only about 300 made the cut. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.
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