The President proposes and Congress disposes.
So goes the standard description of the constitutional process by which our republic is governed. Judging from the news headlines, you might think this process has not been friendly lately to the scientific community. Again and again, the Trump administration has proposed drastic cuts to the research budgets of the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, NASA and other agencies.
Quietly, however, Congress often has gone the other way and handed out increases. In January, the Congress passed, and President Trump finally signed, a spending bill for 2019, averting another government shutdown. Lost amid the collective sigh of relief and the hoopla about President Trump’s wall was the news that astronomers had won a key victory: A pair of cosmically ambitious telescopes were rescued from possible oblivion.
One of them, the James Webb Space Telescope, NASA’s long-promised successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, was designed to peer deeper into space and time than any optical eyes before it, to study the earliest stars and galaxies of the cosmos. But as of last year, it was deep in the red.
In the 1990s, the Webb telescope was expected to cost about $800 million. But the price kept growing, threatening to suck money from NASA’s other science programs. In 2011, Congress put a hard cap of $8 billion on its cost. Then an accident in 2018 at Northrop Grumman, the telescope’s main contractor, added another billion to the projected cost, putting the telescope or other NASA missions in danger of being trimmed or canceled.