The following statement is from me, Dr. Brian Nord, Dr. Sarah Tuttle, and Dr. Lucianne Walkowicz, authors of the Scientific American article The James Webb Space Telescope Needs to be Renamed and the petition to #RenameJWST, as well as a previous statement responding to a FOIA cache of NASA emails about our campaign. We are responding to today’s statement from NASA headquarters.
We will be carefully reading the 89 page Dr. Brian C. Odom-authored report attached to NASA’s statement, aware that based on the introduction it seems to be answering the question “Is there definitive physical proof that James Webb knew about Clifford Norton and his case?” That’s a separate question from, “Was James Webb, as administrator, responsible for the activities of the agency he led?”
NASA’s press release utilizes a practice of selective historical reading: because we do not know of a piece of paper that explicitly says, “James Webb knew about this,” they assume it means he did not. In such a scenario, we have to assume he was relatively incompetent as a leader: the administrator of NASA should know if his chief of security is extrajudicially interrogating people. So, if NASA wants to roll with vindicating him from homophobia by suggesting he was incompetent, that’s certainly a choice they can make.
However, all evidence points to the suggestion that Webb continued to be in positions of power specifically because he was highly competent. In context of this, it is highly likely that he knew exactly what was happening with security at his own agency during the height of the Cold War. It is hypocritical of NASA to insist on giving Webb credit for the exciting things that happened under his leadership — activities that were actually conducted by other people — but refuse to accept his culpability for the problems. NASA is engaging in historical cherry picking, which is deeply unscientific in our view.
Moreover, we are deeply concerned by the implication that managers are not responsible for homophobia or other forms of discrimination that happens on their watch. This is an explicitly anti-equity, diversity and inclusion stance that places responsibility on the most marginalized people to fend for ourselves, and it is in conflict with legal norms in many US jurisdictions.
Ultimately, Webb has at best a complicated legacy, including his participation in the promotion of psychological warfare. His activities did not earn him a $10 billion monument. As we wrote in Scientific American, "The time for lionizing leaders who acquiesced in a history of harm is over. We should name telescopes out of love for those who came before us and led the way to freedom—and out of love for those who are coming up after.” We will keep fighting for a future that includes us all.