In this series of posts, we sit down with major figures working on astronomy policy to discuss career trajectories, advice, and science policy issues at the national level.
Astronomy research regularly makes headlines. Some astronomers, such as Katie Mack and Brian Greene, have even become celebrities in their own right. However, the incredible amount of effort required to authorize, fund, and organize this research is often overlooked in such coverage. For astronomy in the United States, this effort typically occurs at the federal level through NASA, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, the Department of Defense, and the Smithsonian Institution. Interactions between these entities fall under the broad umbrella of science policy, a field that requires expertise in both current research and policy to facilitate collaboration between scientists, legislators, and industry leaders. This can be quite daunting, but Kelsie Krafton, the AAS John N. Bahcall Public Policy Fellow, has certainly risen to the challenge.
The American Astronomical Society (AAS) serves as ambassador for professional astronomy in the US to both the government and industry, explaining and publicizing the work that is being funded through taxpayer money and the implications it may have for society as a whole. At her post in Washington, D.C., Krafton frequently meets with staff members of the key House and Senate committees to figure out what policymakers care about and use that as a gateway to concerns of AAS. For example, Krafton notes that general research infrastructure “has been underfunded for years, leaving many of our world-class facilities much in need of repairs and upgrades. We hope that, if there is an infrastructure bill in the near future, some of that money can go towards research infrastructure.” She also participates in broader science policy coalitions as an astronomy representative, attends networking events to increase awareness of astronomy research, and updates policymakers on the Decadal Surveys.
All of this has been a major shift for Krafton, who recently received her Ph.D. in Physics from Louisiana State University in August of 2019. “A Ph.D. involves perhaps juggling 5 projects that will each take a couple of months. Policy jobs require juggling 50 tasks that each take a day,” she says. Additionally, meetings with policymakers typically require a substantial amount of research. Krafton says that she spends roughly 3 hours before and after each meeting to make sure she is sufficiently knowledgeable about the topic and to address all the concerns of the person with whom she just met. This level of preparation is imperative Krafton notes, since policy meetings can have far-reaching effects. “Mistakes in academia only hurt you. Mistakes in policy hurt a lot of people.”
Recently, many of these meetings have focused on space commerce and satellite constellations, NASA and NSF re-authorizations and appropriations, and increased space exploration under NASA’s Artemis program. Satellite constellations have the potential to significantly impact ground-based astronomy in the coming years, and the AAS has been working with both observatories and industry leaders to predict and minimize potential disruptions to observation time. In particular, the AAS formed a working group (of which Krafton is a part) last summer in conjunction with the International Astronomical Union to address the issue. This group aims to publish a white paper this summer that explains the nuances of the problem and possible solutions.
Though regulation might appear to be a viable avenue to protect astronomical observations, Krafton argues that this should be a last resort as it severs amicable relationships with companies. “We hope that by establishing and maintaining partnerships with industry, they will be willing to adapt to our recommendations,” she says. Given that the pace of technological development is only increasing, it will be important to work together with industry to jointly support innovation and investigation. Some of this innovation is focused on sending the first woman and next man to the moon by 2024 under the Artemis program. The federal budget has granted NASA a significant increase in funding for this endeavor, as it will serve as a stepping stone to send humans to Mars over the coming decades.
For Krafton, though, the most personal area of science policy is STEM education at the state level. This issue motivated her to apply to the John N. Bahcall Public Policy Fellowship, and she believes that a solid infrastructure for STEM education in each state is crucial for the United States moving forward. She notes, “You need access to math education to get a job moving forward. You don’t need a bachelor’s degree, but you do need some sort of STEM education.” Find out more about current STEM education policy at the state level from the STEM Education Coalition.
In order to affect this change in STEM education and other matters, Krafton says there is much that astronomers and the general public can do. Responding to agency requests for information, participating in calls for public comment, or simply contacting your representative about proposed legislation can all have real impacts. The Federal Register hosts information about all proposed rules, notices, memorandums, and other official documents from the federal government, and you choose to view only the documents related to a particular topic or agency if you wish. You also can get involved and stay informed by responding to action alerts from AAS, participating in student or local government, or watching Congressional science committee hearings on C-SPAN. See the links below for more information on these resources and getting involved. By participating in science policy, the public can ensure that policymakers continue to support and incorporate the highest quality science in their plans for the future of the country.
- American Astronomical Society News
- House Committee on Space, Science, and Technology Newsletter Sign-Up
- AAS Committee on Astronomy and Public Policy Contacts
- American Association for the Advancement of Science
- Dissertation on State-by-State STEM Education Policy Analysis for K-12 Public Schools by Courtney Carmichael