28 June 2023

The Power of Citizenship: Working Together to Improve Our Country

Fabio Pacucci Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian

Every year a team of AAS volunteers descends to Washington, DC, to directly advocate for astronomy to the congressional offices. Our most recent Congressional Visits Day (CVD) occurred in April; our volunteers participated in a 1.5-day workshop to learn the ins and outs of science advocacy and the federal processes and visited the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy as well as the offices of their congressional members. In this guest post, Fabio Pacucci (Twitter: @Fabio_Pacucci), the Clay Fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, reflects on his experience as a volunteer. 

A picture of several AAS Congressional Visits Day Volunteers with Rep. Katherine Clark in her office. From left to right: Fabio Pacucci, Yaswant Devarakonda, Rep. Clark, Caeley Pittman, and Tim Sacco.
A picture of several AAS Congressional Visits Day Volunteers with Rep. Katherine Clark in her office. From left to right: Fabio Pacucci, Yaswant Devarakonda, Rep. Clark, Caeley Pittman, and Tim Sacco. 

I have gathered many souvenirs over the years that now stare at me from the shelves of my home library. A jar preserving some sand collected in my hometown on the Southern coast of Italy, overseen by a calaca — a figure of a Mexican skeleton — cheeringly playing the vihuela. Held at full mast inside a NASA mug, a little American flag reminds me of one of the most important days of my life. A federal judge in Boston gave it to me in October 2022 to celebrate my naturalization ceremony — the day I became a US Citizen.

One of the civic test questions that all the citizens-to-be must pass asks how Americans can participate in their democracy to, hopefully, improve it. Among the possible answers: “give an elected official your opinion on an issue,” “call Senators and Representatives,” and “publicly support or oppose an issue or policy.” The Congressional Visit Day (CVD), organized yearly by the AAS, thus represents the essence of American democracy: bringing the concerns and wills of citizens directly into the halls of Congress, where federal power originates to then percolate in every corner of the USA. The AAS taught us how the system works and how to advocate for science.

The sun cast its mid-April rays upon the majestic Capitol building while a group of astronomers from all over the country gathered in the nearby offices of the AAS. April is a crucial month for the Congressional budget, the mighty act describing government spending authorized in a fiscal year.

An enlightening exchange with leaders from NASA, the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the Department of Energy (DOE) marked the first day. Their insights revealed how these agencies coordinate their efforts, navigating the intricate landscape of politics, to maintain US leadership in science. A representative from the NSF painted a vivid picture of the agency’s “science by the pound” role in driving scientific progress. And then a NASA official described how the appropriation process fundamentally drives our chances to implement the goals of the US Decadal Survey. To conclude the day — before the rooftop happy hour — AAS President Kelsey Johnson dazzled us with the pressing issue of the proliferation of low-orbit commercial satellites and its detrimental impact on astronomy. She shared the AAS’s collaborative efforts with industry and policymakers to safeguard the future of astronomical observations and the beauty of the dark sky.

On the second day, Bethany Johns, the AAS Acting Director of Public Policy, flashed the essential practices to bridge the gap between researchers and policymakers: communication is vital in shaping policy. Science is generally a bipartisan topic, where representatives from both sides of the aisle can come together to make progress — if we articulate our needs. A representative from the Federation of American Scientists further described the ever-evolving world of science policy amid shifting political landscapes. To conclude the learning session, Yaswant Devarakonda, a newly minted AAS John Bahcall Public Policy Fellow, unveiled the hidden clockwork of a successful Hill visit. We learned how to craft compelling messages, incorporating personal stories that would resonate with policymakers. While Dr. Devarakonda focused on our side of the story, the following two speakers described how our interlocutors work: congressional offices and committees. A lobbyist told us the various roles played by congressional staff: what are the differences between those who work in the House and Senate or those in personal and committee offices? To conclude, a representative of the National Academies described the dynamics that shape the decision-making processes. What initially resembled unintelligible machinery, full of oily nuts and bolts and wheels, was being dismantled and carefully explained to us.

After all this preparation, we readied to depart for our first quest: a meeting with the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) at the White House. The OSTP is a department of the US government with a mandate to advise the President on matters of Science and technology. After being cleared by the Secret Service, we headed to the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, a castle-like fortress facing the White House. In a room featuring a giant model of the Saturn V rocket and overlooking the White House, we discussed with OSTP officials some equity issues in the field. For example, how immigration policy affects the retention rate of international talents in STEM fields.

Wednesday was our visit to Congress. We left our hotels early, armed with a full-dress suit and a suite of core messages to present to legislators’ offices. Our goals were simple:

  1. Introduce the US Decadal Survey in Astronomy and Astrophysics and its multi-decadal goals regarding new telescopes and the importance of scientists — the People working at the edge of the unknown.
  2. Increase awareness of how federal funding for Science is essential and has profound repercussions for students’ and senior researchers’ careers.
  3. Discuss our budget requests and how a lack of funding will negatively affect the national scientific enterprise.

On that shiny day, we walked miles and miles between congressional offices in the House and Senate side in a quest to transmit the wonder of science in the halls of power. In this journey, we met impressively prepared staffers and congresspeople who carved out a slice of their time to discuss with us. Some were remarkably knowledgeable of space policy: their detailed understanding of the issues we discussed showed us that there are plenty of capable people in Congress.

During our journey, we even rode on the underground train that links the congressional offices to the Capitol building. After wandering in the white, wide, and marbled halls, passing in front of the “Ways and Means” office surrounded by TV cameras, we were wonderstruck by the beauty of the office of the Democratic Whip: Katherine Clark, the second-in-command of the party. Here, the congresswoman listened to our presentation and assured us that funding for federal Science is among the top priorities of their agenda.

After a day of meetings, many miles walked, a ride on an underground train, and stops at the TV-famous cafeteria, one may ask: what real impact did we have? Of course, nobody expects that our meetings will have a direct, significant influence on the budget of the United States. Too many forces are at play, and too many lobbyists visit the same people we met.

What we achieved is increasing awareness of the importance of funding science within the congressional offices that count. We conveyed the importance of supporting astronomy because, in essence, it is beautiful. Images of stars and galaxies and black holes inspire generations of kids to study math, physics, chemistry, computer science, biology, and so on. These kids will gain a better understanding of reality and will obtain better-paying jobs in the future. Some will also become scientists and contribute to expanding our knowledge of the universe.

Supporting science is a bet on the sense of wonder of current generations to create a brighter future. This goal inspired us to advocate for science. After all, the power of citizenship condenses in working together, through action, to improve our country.

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