Planetary Radio • Nov 11, 2022
Space Policy Edition: What the Congressional Midterms Mean for Space Science
On This Episode
Astrophysicist, Acting Director and Deputy Director of Public Policy at the American Astronomical Society
Chief of Space Policy for The Planetary Society
Senior Communications Adviser and former Host of Planetary Radio for The Planetary Society
Next year a new class of elected officials will enter Congress and usher in changes to the political focus and leadership of key space and science committees. Dr. Bethany Johns, the deputy director of Public Policy for the American Astronomical Society, joins the show to discuss how her organization is preparing for the change, what issues they intend to focus on, and how the scientific community can engage with members of both parties to ensure continued investment in U.S. scientific capability.
Related Reading and References:
Mat Kaplan: Welcome again everyone to the Space Policy edition of Planetary Radio. I'm Mat Kaplan, the host of the weekly show. Joined as always on SPE, because it wouldn't be SPE without him, by the senior space policy advisor and chief advocate of The Planetary Society, welcome Casey Dreier. I guess we were both hoping with the rest of the United States and a lot of the world that we would have more to talk about regarding the election today, but not just yet.
Casey Dreier: Yeah, I was perhaps a bit optimistic last week when I gave my little intro to our bonus episode that we would delay this show by one week in order to talk about the results and what it means for space science going forward in the next Congress. And we just don't know. At the time we're recording this, it still could be either Republican or Democratic control of the House or the Senate. Either way, it will be very close. And so we actually brought in a colleague and friend of mine, Bethany Johns, who's the deputy director of the American Astronomical Society. We kind of go through this. We talk about what does it mean to be in a closely divided Congress, what are our priorities going to be going forward? So we still talk a lot about the implications of this election, just with the caveat that the final outcome and implications, we probably actually won't know until January or February of next year. Not just the elections, but who serves in committees and what the final setup of Congress is going to look like.
Mat Kaplan: We'll have to leave it at that for now, but I look forward to hearing this conversation you've had with Bethany because so much of not just astronomy and space exploration, but so much of what happens in the United States will be determined by the balance that is struck in the legislative branch here in the United States. In the meantime, Casey, you have a position about dealing with that legislative branch that you want to make sure everybody knows is open.
Casey Dreier: This is a fun thing to talk about. So right now, The Planetary Society is hiring. If you want to work with me, if you like listening to me frequently talking about space policy, arguing about space policy and the philosophy of space, but more practically convincing people in power to invest in space science and exploration, to really represent the planetary Society's core interests in planetary exploration, search for life and planetary defense, this is the job for you perhaps. And we're hiring for the director of government relations to be based in Washington DC, to work with me here in the West Coast, again who would be the person on the ground in DC making the case for what we do for investments in space science exploration for the good of all humanity. This is a very good job. Mat, you've worked at the Society for over 20 years and I've worked now 10 years. It's a pretty nice place to work, good benefits and really flexible things, and of course it's hard to beat the topics that we talk about.
Mat Kaplan: Yeah, it is a great place to work. It is better now than it has been during my entire tenure of actually 22 years, and it's always been a great place to be. So I just am thrilled by the thought that we will have a new colleague taking on this job in Washington DC being the voice of all of our members and so many other fans of space exploration. What are the qualifications you're looking for, Casey, other than somebody who really takes the passion, beauty, and joy of space exploration to heart?
Casey Dreier: Start with the passion. You got to have the passion. What we're really interested this time is, if we strongly prefer candidates with formal training in some sort of space science engineering or space policy field. Even if you don't have a ton of experience on the hill, even if you don't have a ton of experience in government relations, we will consider you if you come in with a demonstrated ability to persuasively communicate. So if you have written essays or gone on podcasts or done talks where you try to convince people of something and you have a strong science background, consider submitting an application to us. We're also, of course, happy to consider people without that strong science background who do have demonstrated experience working in Congress or work in Capital Hill in the government relations position. But you really got to show us your science and space passion bonafide. So planetary.org/careers, you can find the link, the full list of qualifications and descriptions there. But again, the key thing there, you bring your passion, you have to be outgoing, and this is the word that I really wanted to put into the description, curious. And I don't mean that in a way that that's an odd person, but they're inquisitive, they're open and curious about how things work. That's the key thing. If you can explain and use your curiosity as the key to your passion and just so excited to share that when you learn something about it with others, that's the key to effective communication and to effective government relations and effective space advocacy. So again, I hope people really take a look and consider their applications. This will be open until the first week of December of 2022. So get your applications in by then, that's when we start considering the applicants that we do have and we hope to hire somebody to start with a new Congress in 2023.
Mat Kaplan: I'll just say that we're okay with a small amount of odd, that's okay, you'll fit it right in.
Casey Dreier: You can be a little curious.
Mat Kaplan: Yeah, just don't put it at the top of your resume as your greatest skill. Good luck out there folks. I bet there are a few of you out there whose ears are perked up now, and I wish you lots of luck. Anything else that we need to cover other than letting people know that they should go to planetary.org/join and really demonstrate that passion, beauty and joy, put it to work in the easiest way possible by becoming a member of the society.
Casey Dreier: I'll just make one more plug, the day of action. For those who missed our announcement the other week, we will be doing an in-person day of action in 2023, but not until September. We're going to delay it to let the consequences and various COVID and security restrictions work themselves out. For the first of the incoming year, we will be doing a day of action light, kind of a big drive for congressional outreach and engagement in the spring in time for the appropriations process. So we're going to be doing kind of one and a half action events next year, but with this day of action in-person in September. So plan for that and we will give more details when we have a congressional calendar and things really clear up after this election season.
Mat Kaplan: All right, Casey, once again, remind us of your guest today and we'll get started with that conversation.
Casey Dreier: Yeah, Bethany Johns old colleague and friend of mine who's been working on these issues for a number of years. She's the deputy director of public policy at the American Astronomical Society. She's also the acting director at the moment as her current boss serves in the Office of Science and Technology Policy at the White House on a temporary detail. So she is running the astronomical communities, public policy and government relations work. Very knowledgeable, fun to talk to. And we have some great conversation on what to expect going forward into next year for space science in the new Congress.
Mat Kaplan: All right then, here is Casey with Bethany Johns and we will rejoin you on the other end to close out this month's space policy edition.
Casey Dreier: Dr. Bethany Johns from the American Astronomical Society, thank you for joining us today on the Space Policy Edition.
Bethany Johns: My pleasure, thank you.
Casey Dreier: Well, I had naively perhaps assumed that we would have more definitive congressional results to talk about at the time that we're recording this, which is Thursday morning, two days after the election on November 8th. At the moment, from what best information we have is that neither the House nor the Senate is called for Republican or Democratic control. It looks like, I'd say the best predictions probably suggest, and this is always done advisedly, talking about the future, it's looking like we might see a very narrow Democratic control of the Senate and a very narrow Republican control of the House. You work at AAS, you focus on astronomy, broad based science aspects as well. Anything that surprised you from this election cycle to start with and then we can drill down on exactly how that can impact our respective space policy goals for the coming years.
Bethany Johns: Oh, great question. So again, with the American Astronomical Society, what we do is advocate for all of the astronomical sciences. So that is astronomy astrophysics, planetary science, and solar physics. And so one of the things that we keep an eye on of course, are all the issues that are in our decadal survey documents that we advocate for. In our advocacy for those missions or main areas, recommendations in the decadal surveys, we definitely keep an eye on who's in charge in Congress. And one of the things that I think is unique and fun about working in science policy or science advocacy is that science usually gets the best of both parties. We see support on both the Democratic Party and within the Republican Party as well. [inaudible 00:09:43] usually gets very good support with whomever might be in charge, but the main thing is that science is one tiny piece of what the federal government thinks about. Mainly, of course, we care about the general overarching flavor of politics and what we are seeing in terms of what positions members of Congress are positioning themselves for and what general waves of politics. So we try not to get too much deep into the fray of commenting or participating in the electoral process, but we definitely want to be aware of these general political environments and landscapes because that is what decides the federal policy making process in which science is a part of, small piece of it. So we want to make sure that we see people who have a general understanding of science, people who support evidence-based policy making leading in the committees and in the appropriations committees that govern and have jurisdiction over science. But one of the main things that I think many of us who work in science policy have been concerned about over the past couple of years since the pandemic started is this general trend of politicizing science and making it a partisan thing. So during the pandemic of course, you saw how wearing masks and information about vaccines became a conversation of is the science right, is the science wrong, losing a lot of the nuance of how we talk about scientific uncertainty and things like that. And so when you get the politics involved with how we try to inform the public on scientific issues, then it becomes the question of does the public trust science? Because the public trust in the political process isn't always gets the highest ratings. So if you go to Pew Research polling, you can always find data and information on public trust and science versus the public trust and Congress, you can score and see how it goes up and down with the political partisanship as well. So I think that for most scientific societies, what we would mainly want to know and understand is the general trends and how those that have been elected or how the election has worked out this year is, do we see more extreme wings of the party getting elected into office and do those extreme candidates have certain values and ways that they would change the way the political process works in Congress. So the general politics has an effect on how policy is made. And then that affects of course our issues. For example, we were very lucky, I think with CHIPS and Science Act this year, but that was a three-year process. I don't know if many people recognize that the CHIPS and Science bill, the new competitive science bill authorizing so many of our science agencies actually took a significantly long time to get through Congress.
Casey Dreier: There's a lot to unpack there. And I think let's kind of take one piece at a time because you make a really important point, which is, first, let's say for American Astronomical Society like The Planetary Society, we're both nonprofit organizations. And so not only kind of by design but by law, we don't engage in electoral politicking, IRS tax status does not allow us to do that, and frankly we're not interested in that, because to your point that you're making, we work with whoever is in elected office to try to engage them on these issues there. There's no inherent partisanship going to the planets or studying astronomy or any of these fundamental scientific things. These are fundamental broad aspects of what public sector does. And so as a consequence, if I can just kind of restate some of you're saying, how I interpret it, is that regardless who wins, we're engaging them, but what you're looking for are these broad trends of approach, how does science get prioritized and considered within the various kind of currents and political wings of the parties in power? And so we have only real two dominant parties in this country, but they also of course, they're not monolithic party representation. Both parties have more conservative and more liberal wings to them, though it's more efficiently sorted over the years.
Bethany Johns: That is also one of the interesting election results, is that even in states that may have voted for a Republican governor, the Republican candidate maybe for Senate didn't make it. Yes, as you mentioned, the parties still have a spectrum of ideologies.
Casey Dreier: In a way that's a healthy, I think democracy that represents that. But at the time it also makes very difficult broad sweeping generalizations that I was hoping to make in this discussion. Because we don't know the answers quite yet, but there's a couple takeaways that we can say in terms of how we're going to be approaching next year. Let's take the broad sense and then we can drill down some of the points you brought up. First is, we're used to seeing an art, you and I's lifetime, pretty dramatic swings in midterm elections, usually away from the party that controls the White House. And that didn't really happen this year. It wasn't a massive wave election. I think a lot of people are expecting it to be. It's much, much tighter control. And again, we're still uncertain on the exact outcome of who controls the Senate or the House, but it's going to be narrow either way.
Bethany Johns: That's what unusual. It's like usually it's significantly a number of votes that you've got guaranteed in the Senate, and so you don't have to worry about the filibuster. I think so many people forget what you learned in civics class and high school is not how Congress works. It's not who votes majority. You have to have 60 votes or more nowadays. And so many people I think forget that. So we're used to seeing, as you said, the clear decisive swing to having enough votes to have a mandate, I guess you could say.
Casey Dreier: And I'd say the one key thing that I always like to emphasize is that regardless if a party has a one vote majority or in the House, a 30-40 vote majority, it doesn't matter because the majority party gets to set the calendar, it gets to set the focus of committee work, it gets to set and really control the landscape of discussion. And that's what gives the inherent advantage to the majority, even if they can't pass legislation easily, like a very narrowly majority controlled Senate, they can still decide what to investigate. In the Senate, they can decide what nominees to support, judicial nominees to pass through even with a bare majority. And so that really sets the focus and tone, I'd say, of broad kind of focus on that. And then again, really trickles down to those of us interested in science, where does science fit into that based on the overriding interests of the party and control. And again, we have the general, I'd say luxury in this business of having a pretty engaged, particularly in the House, I'd say a Republican party and Democratic party on science issues and particularly space science issues. For the AAS, maybe we should even say the AAS is slightly different than the society in terms of what exactly it's trying to do. Is that worth highlighting the differences? How would you describe really the fundamental organizational difference between what the society is made up and focused on and what you're trying to achieve and what you're working with at the AAS?
Bethany Johns: So with the American Astronomical Society, we are a group of professional astronomers, planetary scientists and solar physicists. So our main group of people who we work for is the traditional research scientist. Most of our membership is in the university setting, but we do still have a significant fraction who work in industry. So they'll do basic R&D for industry, for Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martins, those that build the space telescopes, ball aerospace. And we also have a significant number of people who work in government. So of course the NASA National labs and the Department of Energy Labs as well as the observatories that are on the ground that a National Science Foundation funds. So these are the people who are really doing the work of collecting the photons that we care so much about and taking those beautiful images of the deep field and the nebula that the James Webb has just put out. Also doing the very, very hard work, difficult work of data archiving and understanding how we can use information, open access for anybody and trying to make sure that all those photons find some sort of standard processing. So it's really a fun group to represent because that's my background. My background is in high energy astrophysics. What I did was try to observe Positrons annihilating in the galactic center. So I did all kinds of things, working with specific types of photons, whether they were high energy or radio and trying to discover how the magnetic field of the galaxy worked. So it's fun to be able to work with the friends and colleagues, but doing the policy side of it and making sure that everything I do enables them to answer these fundamental scientific questions we have about the universe. So that's the main core group with the American Astronomical Society.
Casey Dreier: Professionals. And that's I think an interesting distinction. So while The Planetary Society is mainly fans of space, and we do have some professionals who are members, you're very specifically for professional membership and representing professional interest in astronomy and space science. And I always like the idea of photon collecting as the core idea of most astronomers. I always kind of imagine them walking around like plucking a photon here and there, putting it into a bag on the sock in the back.
Bethany Johns: That's about right. We really have to keep that telescope open for a significantly long time to even get one photon. Or even sometimes if you're doing what's called multi messenger astronomy, you might be doing active [inaudible 00:21:21] nuclei that collide and there might be one neutrino a year.
Casey Dreier: What's the big focus then for AAS in the next year? And I think again, the key here is that generally it probably doesn't matter which party ends up controlling each House of Congress, because your interests are going to be pretty consistent regardless. So what's really drawing your attention in your organization's attention in 2023?
Bethany Johns: Most of what we are concerned about is of course funding for the next big telescope, whatever the successor to Roman will be. So we of course have launched the James Webb Space telescope. It's up there doing wonderful things. But we also have another widefield instrument called the Roman telescope going up as well. And we are also planning on what technologies have to be developed in order to build that successor, the next big highly segmented mirror. So the decadal survey for astronomy of course is talking mostly about technology maturation. And this is interesting during this time when a lot of the conversation, again with the CHIPS and Science Act, with the National Science Foundation being authorized to form a new directorate, technology innovation and partnership director at TIP. And it's more about applied technologies and understanding where we need to do research to be competitive globally. So there's a lot of focus on 5G technologies, bio technologies and things like that, and how we compete and stay number one, the US being the number one innovator globally. That's kind of how we are thinking the next decade or at least the next five years, we'll be focused on building the best technologies in order to see exoplanets. We want to actually image an earth-like planet around another star. Can you imagine how amazing that will be? And it'll just be mind blowing, mind blowing. But we have so much work to do to improve technologies in order to get to that level of sensitivity. So we are going to be focused on some of these basic technology developments as well. And of course planetary science had a lot of really great recommendations. One of the things in the planetary, and I think in the astronomy decadal, and I think the Helio physics decadal coming out soon will also be talking about this is equity, diversity and inclusion issues and making sure that all that we do is focused on trying to improve access and pathways to becoming a STEM professional and trying to make sure that the space sciences provide that pathway to become a STEM technical workforce. And that's will be certainly on the docket because that was another big reason why CHIPS and Science Act even got any interest from members of Congress, is that they saw a way to represent their constituency in trying to get access to opportunities for being a STEM professional or going into one of these STEM pathways because that's where most of the jobs are now. And we're seeing even with our industry partners and even the manufacturers, the semiconductor side of things, they're just not able to fill the numbers of jobs they have open right now because you have to have a certain scientific background. So there's a lot of work that we're working on trying to make sure we create a STEM technical workforce and we try to keep those who want to study in the United States and get their degree in the United States to stay in the United States so we can have a domestic and international talent come and stay here. So we're working hard to get to say number one.
Casey Dreier: There's an interesting parallel between collecting photons and collecting people. You're also having to work hard to try to collect talented people from everywhere and really do the extra work to bring in as many of those talented people that are out there and providing a pathway for them to enter the field as you would do those tiny few photons from that exoplanet that you want to image. I like the parallel.
Bethany Johns: It's a fun issue but it's very difficult to solve. It's very reminiscent of the Plutonium-238 issue that I worked on 10 years ago, is the effects of satellite constellations on space sciences. And this can impact any space-based instrument. It can impact any space-based instrument on the ground or instrument on the ground who wants to have access to space. So what's happening is these companies who are trying to provide telecommunications and connections to the internet, to anybody having access, you don't need to necessarily be wired directly, you can just download your access from space. These satellites create these large constellations. So in some cases I think we've seen applications for licensing at the FCC for constellations as large as 10,000 or more. Add it all up, you could ultimately in the next few years see over 400,000 satellites in space. And you've heard of course this issue probably in the news when it comes to SpaceX trying to provide internet connectivity for the Ukraine using the Starlink satellites. There are other companies like Amazon, there's other ones in the UK, OneWeb, I think is another one. What happens is these satellites are shiny and reflect the light of the sun and it creates as it goes, like you might in a dark space, you're sitting outside and you're like looking at the beautiful constellations, the band of the Milky Way, and maybe you see a bright dot go across the sky and you're like, what was that? These bright dots of course are not meteorites because meteorites would flare more. They're just the satellites. And if you time it just right, you might actually see the International Space Station be one of those little bright lights that go across the night sky. Now imagine that times 400,000, and that will create a significant impact on what we're able to do in observing from the ground because it'll create these very bright streaks that just block out all the stars. And it can also create issues in space depending on, of course, what orbit you're in, you could have space debris, you could have an impact on the satellite constellations just getting out of control and then maybe impacting something at a different orbit. I've also heard that some space debris also landed on the moon. So how are we going to have protections for the moon surface if we want to study the moon? Commerce decides on how much satellite constellations to put into space. So how much do you really want to connect to the internet versus how much do you really want to be able to do planetary and astronomy? So it's really a fun, interesting issue. I think of it kind of like astronomy versus capitalism. We won't really win the day, but we'll try and do our best to save at least some access to the nice guy.
Casey Dreier: Do you see that a success in a legislative or policy making process depending on the outcome of this election, or is it even possible to have the United States policy process to be the one answer to it? You already talked about OneWeb out of the UK, you have a number of Chinese mega constellations proposed and other constellations from other nations. And so it's an interesting consequence, because space is that global commons and just the physical requirements of orbit means you can never just block off your own space above your country, you have to have this overflight ability. And so there's no one answer to it. So how do you approach that as an organization in a way that's leads to a potential successful outcome for you?
Bethany Johns: I love that question. We're still tackling that. We're always changing our strategy based on the new things that are happening. Industry is just going go forward as they should, that's their prerogative. And nobody wants to stop connecting tribal nations to the internet or the Ukraine or people study in Antarctica. They apparently now have a contract with unlike constellation, which is kind of ironic. But this particular issue, even though we think of it, maybe you and I, we think of it as a space issue, it can affect our science and what we do. It's really a commerce issue. And so there's a significant portion of our policy strategy that is based on where the politics fall on how people want to move forward with regulation and how we regulate space commerce. And right now it's just, I think still a bipartisan issue. We've seen a lot of bills in Congress now that have both Democrat and Republican sponsors that deal with space orbital debris that deal with telecommunications issues and also the spectrum management, so the radio frequency allocations as well. But none of those bills are being put forward by science committee members of Congress. These are people who mainly have a role in one of the commerce committees. And so it's very interesting to see this intersection of space and commerce and how we try to work with industry partners to mitigate the impacts of satellite constellations. So we do have a two-pronged parallel approach. This long-term strategy of figuring out what policies need to be put in place so that we can work together with space companies. And we also have more of a short term, the impact is now. We currently are having issues being able to see the night sky because of these streaks from satellite constellations. And so the quickest solution so far has been to work with industry to try and build satellites that don't reflect light or don't impact the radio frequency bands. So it's really a two-parallel track approach. And right now I haven't seen an indication, usually I think most people assume that the Republican party is more on the side of industry, the free market, less regulation. But what I recently heard is that some of the more conservative Republican members of Congress are upset with industries being involved in what they call woke issues. You may see that the traditional group of people that really do think of themselves as pro-industry may not come forward and help when industry asks for help. So it's very interesting in the next year to see, again, whomever controls the House will, oh I think really have an interesting policy agenda they can set.
Casey Dreier: Even though they'll have at least for the next two years, a Democratic White House that they would have a veto opportunity for any legislation potentially pass. So that obviously complicates, I'd say any mixed, going back to the election itself, any mixed control of Congress and the White House probably leads to a full stop on everything but the most basic legislation to keep the government running. And even then that might be quite a point of contention.
Mat Kaplan: Stay with us. Casey will be back with more of his conversation with Bethany Johns of the American Astronomical Society.
George Takei: Hello, I'm George Takei. And as you know, I'm very proud of my association with Star Trek. Star Trek was a show that looked to the future with optimism, boldly going where no one had gone before. I want you to know about a very special organization called The Planetary Society. They are working to make the future that Star Trek represents a reality. When you become a member of The Planetary Society, you join their mission to increase discoveries in our silver system, to elevate the search for life outside our planet and decrease the risk of earth being hit by an asteroid. Co-founded by Carl Sagan and led today by CEO Bill Nye, The Planetary Society exists for those who believe in space exploration to take action together. So join The Planetary Society and [inaudible 00:35:28] they go together to build our future.
Casey Dreier: We were talking a lot about committees, let's talk about just the committee structure a bit because that's really important to us and it's really important to how our policies move forward. But they can be a bit opaque. So let's just be really clear and we can actually look at the election in that context. So Congress works by committee. There are these committees that focus on particular topic areas and jurisdictions. The ones that really impact us for the most part are the science committee in the House and a parallel version of that science committee in the Senate subcommittee, Transportation Committee that has a science subcommittee part to it, is that correct? Or a commerce committee that has a, it's-
Bethany Johns: Yeah. So I think-
Casey Dreier: Let me take that from the top, it's a-
Bethany Johns: House science and Senate commerce are the two main committees that have authorization over NASA and NSF.
Casey Dreier: It's weird because there's a House science committee and then there's a subcommittee in the Senate commerce committee that hits the same area. The structure is a bit different than that. But the key there, authorization, meaning they write these authorization bills, the latest of which was for NASA included in the last CHIPS and Science bill that we've talked about a little bit. But they also have oversight responsibility in terms of performance and behavior. And most other laws that aren't directly apportioning money tend to be assigned to that committee for development approval passage before going to a full boat. So of those committees have extraordinary influence in drafting the language of the bill itself. And there are staff, permanent staff on these committees that represent both Republicans and Democrats that work there for years, have incredible amount of knowledge and expertise in these areas that then write the nuts and bolts of the language. And that's where the match gets made. It's actually writing the language, writing the exact policy, you have the most influence over that. It gets harder as it moves forward in the entire process being voted into law. It gets harder and harder to amend and change the language. Our other key one that we've talked about probably most is appropriations. The actual, what I always like, because I think money is policy, the dollars are ultimate policy priority, money to do things is through these separate committees, different group of congress people and senators. And they don't have to always match up with this other group that writes the authorization bills. So you can authorize all the money you want, but then you can have a completely different story when it comes to actually delivering those dollars through appropriations. And so the people in personnel on those committees, that tends to be a focus for both of us and all of our colleagues and knowing the ins and outs and what they're focusing on and who the people want, and also this is where the idiosyncratic interests of the leadership on these committees. And ultimately, again, the leaders of those committees are going to be the party in control of that Chamber of Congress, and what they want and what their interests are tend to be reflected in the outcome of the bill to a certain extent of cooperation that needed to pass these things out. This is where we had this great situation, at least in planetary science during the last 10 years of John Cobalt, who was the chair of the House appropriations committee, loved Europa, loved planetary science, great time to be funding planetary science because he, as the chair of the House appropriations committee, could really push these things.
Bethany Johns: And a [inaudible 00:38:49] Republican party.
Casey Dreier: Yeah, and a member of Republican party. So again, kind of transcending your kind of classic divide. And I think this is why we track. I've been tracking this and you've been tracking this from the election that we know so far, and I think the key thing here is that the real changes to appropriations and these space and science committees, frankly, are going to be from people electing to retire, not being elected. And even in a wave election, most people are reelected in Congress. This was not a wave election, it was a very, very, very tight election. And so there's only a handful, we're looking at maybe six or so changes of people who are currently in these key science and appropriations committees for NASA and space. I'd say the most major ones are going to be the very top level appropriators in the Senate. So we had Richard Shelby from Alabama, [inaudible 00:39:48] of Marshall Space Flight Center and the space launch system rocket really keeping that afloat. He's retiring and was replaced by, I think a woman who was one of his staffers at one point, Katie Britt, she'll be coming in. Peter Welch is going to be coming in for Patrick Lehe, who was the chair of the appropriations committee from Vermont. But the problem is, when you have new people come in, they don't assume a leadership position. Leadership in Congress tends to be a function of how long you've been around.
Bethany Johns: Seniority, what class you're in.
Casey Dreier: You get seniority. And so people kind of enter at the bottom of the hierarchy here and they don't necessarily take over. See Richard Shelby, I'm sure Katie Britt is going to also be a very strong supporter of the SLS. All incentive to do that as representing Alabama. But she's not going to be either the ranking member or chair of appropriations.
Bethany Johns: So when new members of Congress come in, they go through what they call freshman orientation.
Casey Dreier: Just like in college.
Bethany Johns: It's exactly like it. There's a whole suite of things that they have to do to come up to speed on the congressional process, the rule making process, and even just how the rules of being cordial in the chamber, things like that. You put, I guess, your priorities on what committees you want to be on. Hopefully you've done that work about a month ahead of time, actually, because they start doing this orientation sometime around early December, mid December. If you're in DC, you'll see the people actually coming and going from the capital when they do these orientations. The people who have been there longer get first choice. And those people who actually vote the way the leadership asks them to vote when it comes to big issues get the highest priority in where they want to go. So let's say you really, really wanted to be the chair of the science committee, the House science committee, not only do you need to have some experience on the committee before you become chair usually, but you have to make sure you are following party line politics in order to become a chair as well. So there's whole lots of gears and levers and political machinations that have to happen in order to get you higher and higher and higher up the hierarchy to become one of the major leaders of a committee. And then once you become a leader of a committee, there is significant levels of power because you can, as the chair of a committee, change and amend some bills that are supposed to be happening committee without having to go through the traditional committee amendment markup process. So there's a lot of behind the scenes negotiations when it comes to offering amendments sometimes that you can do your traditional politicking of like, hey, you give me this, I'll give you that. And that's how sometimes things get into certain bill. That's how the CHIPS and Science Act got from 300 pages to over 2,000 pages. So that's one of the examples of how you can use your power, but you have to keep your power as well. It's not just being pro-science and pro-evidence based policy making, it's about also supporting your party and the leadership of your party, and sometimes comes down to fundraising as well. It's not just like...
Casey Dreier: And this is why we won't really know, even if we know who controls Congress in the next week or so, we won't necessarily even know who's going to lead these committees because of new freshman coming in, and then also this kind of committee shuffle that can happen. We can make some guesses. It seems like Brian Babin, for example, if the Republicans take the House, is probably going to be the chair of the space subcommittee because he's been there. The problem though, if it's true that Republicans have a term limits on their committee leadership too, so they have to kind of be cycling new people in every year, six years or so, is what I recall.
Bethany Johns: Congress makes the rules, Congress can break the rules. So if [inaudible 00:44:18] comes in as chair or leader of the House of Republicans, then they could change the rules if they wanted to. But I don't think that there's a lot of interest in that, given how the party tries to limit government usually is their general theme.
Casey Dreier: There's also, I think that we just have to be honest that the science subcommittees or as committees tend not to be the most desirable committees for members of Congress just because, unless they're just into science, this is where that kind of idiosyncratic aspect comes in. Because they're not particularly powerful. You're not writing tax law, you're not doing oversight, you're not bringing in justices to vote on in the federal judiciary. And so science tends to be lower level in terms of, I think the desirability, and also for fundraising. You're not having oversight of very wealthy parts. You're a professional organization, but notably people don't go into astronomy for the money.
Bethany Johns: I don't know if you've ever tried to create a pack based on science, but it's impossible, because no scientist wants to contribute to a pack that can actually elect someone who's [inaudible 00:45:32].
Casey Dreier: Political action committee.
Bethany Johns: Political action committee, yeah. So it's interesting how, okay, if you really do care about creating evidence-based policy and making sure science is represented in politics, you need to start putting your money where your mouth is.
Casey Dreier: And being a member of the planetary society. And so-
Bethany Johns: Well, you don't have a pack as far as I know.
Casey Dreier: No, We don't have a pack. And this is why people who are in the banking committees tend to get many more. It's a much easier path to raising money for your reelection because the people you have oversight over are just far richer than scientists tend to be, and have more money and industry money to throw around. And so I think that tends to delay the final like a makeup of these science committees until later. So I frankly don't anticipate maybe until February, we'll see the makeup of these committees really lock in. They might be late. I guess it depends how close, there's not a ton of new freshmen coming in. We might limit the amount of how things change this year. But I think it'll be a while before we really know though. Again, I can guess just looking at least on the authorization side, I think you see some committed people who are probably going to remain in leadership, it's just who makes up the rest of the committees. We'll lose a couple people to retirements. But again, no substantial changes based on who was reelected so far.
Bethany Johns: We don't typically see the public list of who's going to be on the committees until late January of a new Congress. So sometimes you can get some committees pre leaked, but not the science ones. But while we're talking about committees, I just wanted, we kind of alluded to it already, do a special shout out to the staff that work on committees. And so there's another sort of wonky thing to understand is that each committee, so if we're talking about House science committee for example, that committee has its own staff. They are divided into majority or minority staff. So if the Democrats for example, are in leadership, then the majority staff will be the Democratic staff. And if it switches, then the minority staff will be the Democratic staff. And they do actually have to physically move offices sometimes, and sometimes in the past-
Casey Dreier: And you get better offices if you're in the majority too.
Bethany Johns: That's right. So in the past, some people actually have been moved out from some of the congressional offices into other buildings, it's very interesting. But what's interesting is that because of unit labor laws or whatever, they can't be fired when a new party comes into leadership. So these are lifetime, usually members of staff committee, committee staff. Like Dick Overman, oh my gosh, how long has he been a staffer, the lead staffer for House science? I don't know.
Casey Dreier: On the Democratic side along, at least 20 years.
Bethany Johns: 20 plus years. So some people really thoroughly enjoy their job and stick around even past all the politics and have seen things come and go.
Casey Dreier: And that's the brain trust of those committees. They have been around for so long, they really know the policy and the history and they know each other and those, I think they are leaned on by the elected officials in power to really write the legislation itself.
Bethany Johns: But then EBJ, Eddie Bernice Johnson, who is currently the chair of the House science committee, she did not run for reelection, she's retired. So even if the Dems had stayed in leadership in the House, that committee would technically have a new boss. And that new boss may not be from Texas. So they still answer to, in a way the constituency of who the chair is and have to think through and understand the politics of the district that their chair comes from and even the districts of the committee makeup as well. But then there are professional office staff, let's say, I don't know, who are we predicting as the next chair? So if the House science committee flips, the House flips to Republican leadership, we're predicting Brian Babin would probably be the chair of the House science committee, for example.
Casey Dreier: Full science or space?
Bethany Johns: House space. The full committee is Science Space and Technology House, SST. So he probably has his own personal office staff that cares very deeply about particular issues including science based issues. So there might be individual staff that work actually for the member of Congress who would actually have to leave if that member didn't get reelected, also working on these issues. So you kind of have to balance the historical broad knowledge of the staff who work for the committee as well as the chief of staff, maybe for example, of the professional office. So there's a lot of places to go to find support and advocate for astronomy and planetary science in Congress. You don't always have to focus specifically on how the committee works. Sometimes you get better traction when you go directly to individual offices. And this was one of the examples that happened with Plutonium-238. The main crux of the issue was there was this general disagreement on how NASA or the Department of Energy should fund the production of Plutonium-238. And the committee staff actually were not helpful in trying to get that disagreement figured out and the solution found. And so we were able to work more with professional offices to try and change some of the policies on that. So now we actually produce plutonium here in the United States.
Casey Dreier: That's a whole other story we should talk about [inaudible 00:52:11].
Bethany Johns: No, we should do that one.
Casey Dreier: Plutonium-238, my favorite isotope of plutonium, that powers deep spacecraft.
Bethany Johns: If people don't get the irony, it's like those elements that create nuclear power are named after the outer planets. It's like, this is perfect, uranium, neptunium, plutonium.
Casey Dreier: Neptunium. Plutonium made that connection before.
Bethany Johns: I think, what is it, uranium is enriched to plutonium and then plutonium [inaudible 00:52:45].
Casey Dreier: And that's the feed stock for Plutonium-238, I think in the current. So I think neptunium is a byproduct of uranium fission. And then they take Neptunium-237, irradiate it to Plutonium-238, and then they go through the whole process. I'm digging this up out of my memory [inaudible 00:53:07].
Bethany Johns: Talk about your audience-
Casey Dreier: One of my favorite infrastructure.
Bethany Johns: Nuclear science nerds here too, right?
Casey Dreier: Yeah. I just love Plutonium-238 and the whole process of, I won't make it, and we're making it now. Congratulations, it was a success.
Bethany Johns: And we're talking about [inaudible 00:53:24] propulsion as well. Oh my gosh, let's talk about that. I don't know. Because that's probably really important to the planetary society.
Casey Dreier: And surface fission and power actually is huge. Frank Lucas, by the way, he's the ranking member of House science. And so he would be, I think the natural assumption of into the chair of House science, that's if he chooses to repaint in that. And then Moore Brooks would be a ranking member hierarchy below him, but he quit his seat to run for Senate and failed. So Bill Posey actually might have a good shot at running House science if Frank Lucas declines. Basically, I think takeaway is, we have no idea what's going to happen.
Bethany Johns: No, no, no. Based on history, we do know that science has a very strong support on both parties. And I think that no matter who takes the leadership either in the Senate or in the House, whatever party takes leadership, I think we'll be able to push forward legislation like the NASA authorization. There was a little tiny piece of NASA authorization in the CHIPS and Science Act, but I think they're going to be doing the real big one in the next Congress. And then I think that we will certainly see some push and movements of course on satellite constellations and any type of implementation of the CHIPS and Science Act. So the communities that advocate for science are going to be pushing real hard to get the real money to get an NSF in other areas. And because those areas are usually nonpartisan, less controversial, I think we'll see some really good support for it. The thing that concerns me the most is the extremism we now see in politics and that general overall landscape of how members of Congress have to maneuver and navigate through all these difficult waters to try not to make their party mad or make their constituency upset or something flares up on Twitter, who knows? Maybe Elon will break it, we don't know. That is, I think, my main concern. How is science going to sail these difficult waters in the next two years? Because congressional term is two years. So we'll see. Of course, we have to try and fund the government. Government shutdowns are no fun. But I do think we'll get into another season of austerity and I'm not looking forward to that era of politics.
Casey Dreier: It's been a nice run while we've had it the last few years of increasing science budgets. Dr. Bethany Johns, the deputy director of Public Policy at AAS and currently the acting director of that same August organization. Thanks for sharing your insight today. We will have you back to examine what happens going forward with this new congress, new members and new policy challenges facing us in 2023 and beyond.
Bethany Johns: Thank you very much, been pleasure.
Mat Kaplan: The Planetary Society senior space policy advisor, our chief advocate, Casey Dreier, talking with his guest, Bethany Johns of the American Astronomical Society. Thank you so much for that, Casey. I guess we can close things out pretty quickly here.
Casey Dreier: Yeah, we'll be back next month at the regular schedule time, first Friday of December. And we have a great discussion on NASA's economic impact report that just came out a few weeks ago, and we dive into the details of that and how NASA impacts in a positive way. I should emphasize, the nation's economy.
Mat Kaplan: I can't wait to hear that. A couple of great guests, including the chief economist of NASA. Like he said, first Friday in December. Thank you very much, Casey. Always a pleasure and I look forward to talking to you next time a month from now, if not before.
Casey Dreier: Looking forward to it, Mat.
Mat Kaplan: That's it for this month's space policy edition of Planetary Radio. I will be back, of course. If you're catching this show right away, you'll be able to hear me talking to Linda Spilker, the most frequent guest on Planetary Radio over the last 20 years. Usually just in her capacity as project scientists for the Cassini mission, but now also the main scientist, the chief of all science for Voyager, the Voyager Interstellar mission. Hope you'll be able to join us then. Thanks so much everybody. Just remember planetary.org/join, please check it out. Look at all the benefits that you can get as you benefit the exploration of our solar system and beyond. Thanks so much and ad astra.