Meet Ashlee Wilkins

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.

Disclaimer: This Astrobites piece reflects individual opinion, and does not represent any official views of Congressional committees, members, or government bodies.

Dr. Ashlee Wilkins

In the previous post on the series, we interviewed Kelsie Krafton, the current American Astronomical Society (AAS) Bahcall Public Policy Fellow in Washington, D.C. After Bahcall Fellows finish their fellowship, they generally go back into astronomy or continue onto a policy career, which many of them choose to do. Former Bahcall Fellow Ashlee Wilkins is one example of the latter, who is currently working in Washington D.C. in science policy. She is a Professional Staff Member in the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, specifically in the Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee.

What do committees/subcommittees do?
A large part of the work done by the U.S. Congress happens at the committee level. For some context, there are currently 20 standing committees in the House and 16 standing committees in the Senate, with members divided into committees in a ratio split between the majority and minority political parties. The exact ratios are set for two years. Each committee is chaired by someone from the majority party, who also sets the agenda for the committee, such as determining what hearings are going to happen and what the specific rules of the committee might be. The committee Wilkins works for is the House Science, Space and Technology Committee which, as its name might suggest, covers everything related to civil science, space, and technology. As an “authorizing committee,” this committee works on enforcing and authorizing laws and can pass a wide range of different science policy bills in a given year.

Wilkins works for the Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee, which has jurisdiction over everything in civil space. Although most of this subcommittee’s work is related to NASA, it also has jurisdiction over parts of other agencies that relate to regulation of commercial space. Examples include research and development at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), commercial space launches and reentry that the FAA regulates, and commercial remote sensing—such as the imaging of Earth from space with CubeSats—being licensed through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). On the whole, the subcommittee serves to either set policy, ensure that policy is being followed, keep track of how the policies are being implemented (e.g., are the policies outdated?), and that the agencies it has jurisdiction over are operating in a manner that serves the American public wisely, efficiently, and effectively. Subcommittee hearings can serve to review progress on large-scale projects (such as the James Webb Space Telescope, JWST) and can also highlight interesting events. For example, a hearing on the 2017 solar eclipse that spanned the contiguous United States focused on science done during the eclipse as well as related STEM outreach; there was also a public hearing on the Event Horizon Telescope results.

How do these subcommittees affect astronomy research?
As the vast majority of astronomy in the U.S. is federally funded by agencies such as the National Science Foundation (NSF), NASA, and the Department of Energy (DOE), much of the work the subcommittees do directly affect astronomy research, especially when it comes to how astronomy research programs are prioritized and functioning. An important example are the decadal surveys which Congress takes very seriously, especially when ensuring that proposed changes, cancellations, or creations of programs are in line with the decadal survey recommendations and prioritizations.

Sometimes, asking for investigations to shed light onto certain topics can help effect change as well. For example, there were recently some concerns about the auctioning of the band around 24 GHz, which could have impacts on Earth-observing satellites and data collection and in turn, weather forecasting abilities and climate research. As the issue is complicated, and no bills have been written yet, the subcommittee has been gathering information in order to understand how the spectrum auctions are run, as well as to ensure that federal investments in science are being protected. 

What does a career trajectory into and in science policy look like?
Wilkins has always been interested in politics but had seen it as very separate from her science interests. She did her Ph.D. in Astronomy at the University of Maryland (UMD), College Park, and became very involved in her community beyond just academics. With other graduate students, she started a diversity initiative called “GRAD-MAP” to build bridges between professors and undergraduates at local institutions, particularly between the University of Maryland and community colleges, minority-serving institutions, and HBCUs. She also got into graduate student government, which she highly recommends for people at all interested in policy. She served as the Vice President for Academic Affairs for the graduate student government, which included co-running a student committee that met with the university provost two to three times a semester.

Through her experience with graduate student government, Wilkins started to see science policy as a possible career. UMD is a train ride away from downtown Washington D.C., so when Wilkins heard that there was a science committee hearing on exoplanets, she was able to just go and see the process. She found it “fascinating to see how members of Congress on both sides of the aisle were just raving about science, particularly about space science… Everyone was really positive… It was fascinating, it was like space science was an area where maybe we can have more interesting conversations past sort of the first level of ‘should we be doing this or not’ for the most part.”

From there, she participated in the AAS Congressional Visits Day (CVD) and learned more about science and space policy. She also learned about the AAS Bahcall Fellowship program, where fellows work at the AAS doing science policy, and is meant to help train Ph.D.-holding astronomers in science and space policy. She was a fellow for about a year and a half. After her first year, she started looking for science policy jobs; as a Bahcall Fellow, Wilkins had already been interacting with some of the staff on the committee, so when there was an opening on the committee, her experience helped her obtain her current job, where she has been at for just under a year at the time of this interview. 

In the policy world, Wilkins notes that there is no clearly defined or singular career trajectory (largely contrasting with academia), as there are so many different directions one could go. Every two to four years, administrations and majority parties can change. When a majority party in the House or the Senate changes, the ratio of staff in committees changes as well, and individual members often come and go. However, some people, such as staff directors of subcommittees and full committees, can stay working with Congress for a long time (over ten years). Future paths could include working in the space industry or in the science community in a strategic management or government relations-type of capacity, such as working for NASA on “the other side of the table from the job that [Wilkins is] doing now,” where experience as a committee staff member would prove very helpful. Additionally, some people have gone on to work in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).

What are some of Wilkins’ impressions about being a committee staff member?
Coming into her job, Wilkins knew a lot about the science portfolio of NASA, but now, she’s learned more about the rest of NASA. She really likes to think about the “bigger picture,” which is a lot of why she wanted to get into policy in the first place, and her current job has allowed her to learn about many things that are happening that she was previously unaware of, such as how commercial space and commercial regulation works, as well as how federal agencies interact together. Wilkins says she has enjoyed seeing the “intricate web of government within science and space policy,” and has also found it rewarding in general to be working a public service job. Intimidating as it can sometimes be, she knows her job is to work for the greater public good as much as she can, and even if progress isn’t made every day, she feels as if she’s part of something that’s trying to do good.

When Wilkins was considering this job, someone had asked her whether she was “comfortable with the idea that you might work really hard on something, and make something that you’re really, really proud of, or do something really great, that then goes nowhere for whatever reason,” to which Wilkins responded that “you can accept that going into [the job].” She notes that such frustrations happen in research too, where she has spent weeks working really hard on something and “then it turned out it was all just a missing comma or a bug in the code.” In that sense, there are parallels between science policy and research, and Wilkins notes that such frustrations are accepted as part of the job.

Although she sometimes misses the academic environment, Wilkins says she feels happy in her current job, especially because she is constantly looking at these bigger picture questions. She still uses her science background, although in a different capacity than when she was in academia. However, whereas in academia, it might have been more accepted to “go to a talk in the geology department just because it sounds interesting, or have long academic discussions for hours,” she finds her current job much faster paced in a different way, without the undercurrent of everyone being there to learn at a basic level. Nonetheless, Wilkins does what she can to keep in touch with her academic side, squeezing in time to attend talks at local institutions such as universities, NASA headquarters, the Library of Congress, and the National Air and Space Museum.

“It’s worth getting involved”
Before we ended the interview, we asked Wilkins if there was anything she wanted to mention. Her response (lightly edited for clarity) is below:

“It’s really important to be part of the conversation. I think a lot of folks just assume that if you know about something as an astronomer embedded in astronomy, surely the people who should know about something, like something being wrong or being sort of a looming potential issue, that surely the right people know about it and are taking care of it. And it’s just not true, and it’s not out of lack of interest or lack of support. It’s just that there’s so much that’s going on all the time. I mean, our subcommittee is very small. It’s just a handful of people working on all areas of civil space. That’s a really broad portfolio. 

“But on the Hill, that’s a relatively narrow portfolio. In a member’s office, the staffer who’s responsible for space policy almost absolutely has at least two to three to four or five other totally disparate topic areas. Science, space, and technology might be one topic area; they might be doing that, plus education, plus abortion and immigration, and it just means there’s only so much the staff can know. They work very hard and are very good at their jobs and are here as public servants; they could be getting paid better elsewhere, they could be working shorter hours elsewhere, but they want to do their current job, and they’re very, very capable. And they can only know things if they’re being told them. 

“And so it’s really important for folks, if there are issues, to speak up about them. And there are lots of issues. There are always going to be lots of issues. And I think maybe even as astronomers who all find astronomy to be fascinating and wonderful and worth doing, there’s also other things that are more day-to-day that you want to make sure you’re talking about and drawing attention to. And that’s absolutely incredibly important. But sometimes you still need at least a few people to try to be paying attention to things that are happening in astronomy.

“And so I just always encourage folks to speak up to get involved. If you’re interested, your institution probably has a government relations office—that is your institution’s interface. Go talk to the folks at your professional society. They are there to be advocates for your field. So if you’re concerned about the SpaceX Starlink thing, talk to people. It’s something where folks are doing some really good work on it and trying to figure out this issue, but it’s definitely not solved. It’s not totally clear what the future is, and having informed, trustworthy, reliable resources is very helpful for somebody like me and anybody else who works on the Hill. 

“And so if you want your thing paid attention to, or you want to make sure that you have a voice, the only person who can really ensure that is you, or the people who are paid to advocate for you. So talk to them. The thing that I just like to tell people is that it’s worth getting involved, even just to see how the process works. So when something does happen, you know how, and you know who to call when you realize that there’s an issue.”

About Kaitlyn Shin

Kaitlyn (Kait) is a second year PhD student at MIT working with the CHIME/FRB collaboration to study fast radio bursts (FRBs). Her pipe dream is to use FRBs for cosmology, while also letting herself get (relatedly) distracted by galaxies. In her spare time, she enjoys consuming coffee and stories in all forms.

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