Date: May 30, 2011

Title: 2011 Congressional Visits Day with the AAS

Podcaster: Diane Turnshek

Organization: Carnegie Mellon University –

Description: I was invited by the AAS to join in the fun for Congressional Visits Day in April 2011. As scientists, we need to do whatever it takes to educate the public, the politicians and their staff members about the importance of STEM education and support for science, especially when discretionary spending has been targeted in the current US budget cut. We met with NSF and NASA officials, were coached by politicians and the AAAS, and had our day on Capitol Hill talking to Staffers about Plutonium-238 domestic restart, the decadal survey and budget cuts for discretionary spending.

Bio: Diane Turnshek teaches astronomy at CMU, Pitt and St. Vincent, and coordinates the physics outreach at CMU. St. Vincent’s planetarium boasts a state-of-the-art Spitz SciDome projector. Diane worked as a planetarium operator at the Carnegie Science Center’s Buhl Planetarium, assisting in the production of shows. In her astronomy outreach efforts, she has visited schools, libraries, camps, Scouts and Congress. She hosts a monthly public lecture series at Allegheny Observatory. She has consulted with many who wished to keep their science accurate, from authors to opera companies. She is a science fiction author and editor, whose short fiction has been published in Analog Magazine and elsewhere.

Sponsor: This episode of “365 Days of Astronomy” is sponsored by — NO ONE. We still need sponsors for many days in 2011, so please consider sponsoring a day or two. Just click on the “Donate” button on the lower left side of this webpage, or contact us at


Welcome to another edition of 365 Days of Astronomy. I’m Diane Turnshek. I’m the outreach coordinator for the Physics Department at Carnegie Mellon University, where I teach a large intro to astronomy, non-science majors class.

The American Astronomical Society is composed of 7500 scientists and is responsible for the largest gatherings of astronomers in the world, publication of preeminent research journals and outreach, education and career development in astronomy. I was invited by the AAS to join in the fun for Congressional Visits Day in April 2011. Every year in DC, just when the cherry blossoms open for viewing, hundreds of scientists and engineers congregate on Capitol Hill to talk about increased funding for basic research. Actually, we’re told to not to call it, “basic research,” but to call it “advanced” research. A survey of the staffers on the Hill showed that a great many of them thought that, after all that funding, we should be past the “basic” stage by now and on to something more difficult.

As scientists, we need to do whatever it takes to educate the public, the politicians and their staff members about the importance of STEM education and support for science, especially when discretionary spending has been targeted in the current US budget cut. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math. It used to be called SMET, but maybe that was too close to smut.

Planning for Congressional Visits Day started back in November when the call went out to members of the AAS. One day of briefings followed by one day of meetings in Congressional and Senatorial offices. Sixteen astronomers were selected by American Astronomical Society Executive Officer Kevin Marvel and John Bahcall Public Policy Fellow Bethany Johns. Kevin Marvel has his own style, a relaxed look, sunglasses set up on his head, ever-present single-lens reflex slung around his neck. He has a knack for quickly analyzing the personality types of his contacts and immediately adjusting his language and presentation style accordingly. When he talks, you want to agree with him. The AAS is lucky to have him. Bethany Johns is a model of efficiency. She knows and does, and it’s done. The public policy fellow positions began in 1997 and are registered as government lobbyists. They rotate every year or two and are typically used as a stepping stone to higher profile (and higher paying) careers in DC. I’ve rarely met such persuasive people, so this trip was an eye-opener for me. The new Congress is focused on reducing the deficit and science funding is a perennial target for cuts. Having scientists learn about the policy making process is the first step toward our goal. The message goes both ways, us to them and them to us. We need to learn and listen for an effective dialog.

Our breakfast briefing with Dr. Jim Ulvestad, NSF Astronomy Division, focused on how science policy works. We were given notebooks of leave behinds, texts of science policy talks, rankings of education markers in our states and a set of talking points for each of our meetings. Go Carnegie Mellon University, which ranks second in the entire Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for government R&D funding.

Later in the morning, we met with the Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, Dr. Ed Weiler, James Webb Program Scientist Eric Smith, Planetary Science Division Director Jim Green, Astrophysics Division Director Jon Morse, Heliophysics Division Director Rick Fisher, Director of Planetary Science Jim Green and Stephen Merkowitz from the Gravitational Astrophysics Laboratory. It’s harder to get past security at NASA Headquarters than it is to get into the Congressional or Senatorial buildings. We heard the latest from all the divisions and had a chance to ask questions. This was Wednesday April 6th. We were told how hard it was going to be to get anyone’s attention with the possible government shutdown scheduled for Friday. That turned out to be the case—worst timing ever!

Afternoon briefings were run by the AAAS. Advice galore. The Honorable Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY), former Chair of the House Science Committee, retired in 2007. We were told (to quote Tip O’Neill) “All politics is local.” Tell them success stories from their districts. Thank them for previous federal government grants and tell them of the wonderful research the money has funded. Their success is tied to the concerns of their constituents. Kei Koizumi was an excellent speaker. Down to earth, knowledgeable; he answered every question well. Since February, he’s been the Assistant Director of Research and Development at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. When talking to your politicians, elect one spokesperson from your group, don’t be late, always be truthful—say you’ll find out the answer and get back to them if you’re unsure—follow up with thank you notes and calls. We even got specific wording to use, such as, for the COMPETES Act, we’re to tell them, “We encourage you to fully support the vision that COMPETES needs to try to make it fulfilled through to funding.” We were cautioned to not ask for the Moon, but to emphasis the deep thinking about priorities and the air of mutual sacrifice. Convey what these programs meant to us and establish a relationship. Still, it was hard to hear the statement, “Flat is the new up.”

At the Exhibits Reception and Awards Ceremony, I heard Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson (TX) and Congressman Daniel Lipinsky (IL). Did you know that NPR and great PBS shows like NOVA are possibly on the chopping block? Again and again we heard the pro-science message we were to deliver the following day: exciting opportunities for our kids, R&D and STEM ED should fall under the category of national security, be positive, we’re number one now, but challengers are at our heels (China, Korea, India), stimulate the economy, address the need for jobs . . .

Thursday morning began with a welcome to the Hill by the fast-talking Honorable Paul Tonka (NY), an engineer by education, and PA Congressman, the amazing and Most Honorable Chaka Fattah, both friends of science.

Because there are 100 members in the US Senate (two from each state) and 435 members in the House of Congress, the difference in the office space was amazing. On the House side, for one of my meetings, the only available space to talk was in the hallway.

One of the messages we were to deliver was about the decadal survey. Every ten years, an in-depth survey is done in astronomy to determine where next we should focus our energies. The decadal survey begins with a compilation of white papers on every aspect of astronomy, sifted through by boards of scientists for two years. The missions, the telescope projects, the small grants, the bold research initiatives. Everything filtered down to the most promising items—the ones that will push the envelope of research and knowledge for the coming decade. Each time a survey has been delivered, there’s a bump in science funding. Each time but this one.

The 2000 decadal survey was called, “Astronomy and Astrophysics in the New Millennium” and co-chaired by Christopher McKee and Joseph Taylor. Great things have come of it, including the infrared space telescope Spitzer, microwave anisotropy probes, the gamma ray space telescope Fermi and the Solar Dynamics Observer. The survey highlighted, as one of its key projects, the James Webb Space Telescope. JWST has a 6.5 meter primary mirror and will orbit approximately 1.6 million kilometers from Earth. Budget overruns and delays have pushed the launch date into the current decade; hopeful estimates place the telescope in the sky by 2015. Even though NASA administrators have reorganized the program management structure, including appreciating the necessity of a formal NASA review and evaluations by two independent organizations, we still don’t have a government commitment to get this job done. NASA’s deputy chief technologist, Richard Howard, now heads up the new division for JWST, which has moved to NASA Headquarters. We let the staffers see our dedication to this effort and hopefully they appreciated that we can’t abandon this. The further you look in the Universe, the further back in time you’re seeing. As the successor to Hubble, the James Webb Space Telescope will be the best telescope mankind has ever had, capable of reaching back in time to a mere 200 million years after the Big Bang.

Dr. Roger Blandford chaired this current decadal survey committee, which was composed of more than two dozen eminent scientists volunteering their time to prepare the final 324-page manuscript. In the fall of 2010, “New Worlds, New Horizons in Astronomy and Astrophysics” was released by the National Academies Press. Town Halls were held around the country to publicize it. It’s composed of a series of large, medium and small-scale projects, both on the ground and in space.

Our first priority item on the list of Large-Scale Space-Based Initiatives is WFIRST (the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope). For Large-Scale Ground-Based Initiatives, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) heads the list. Also, highly recommended are the Mid-Scale Innovations Program, which includes more than two dozen worthy programs, and the Explorer Program.

Our talking points included the domestic production of Plutonium-238, which is used to power satellite missions throughout the solar system. We had previously thought we could buy the necessary isotope from Russia, but that’s not likely. We need 1.0 to 1.5 kilograms per year. The production process is complex and will take five years to get underway. P238 does not occur in nature, so it cannot be mined. Plutonium-238 has a half-life of eighty-eight years. It’s not weapons-grade material. It’s about twice as dense as lead and an alpha particle emitter—you can shield alpha particles with a piece of paper, which makes it safer than other choices. It’s ideal for powering the space missions that travel to the outer solar system, beyond the range where solar panels are effective. I don’t think there are any viable alternative fuels. Plutonium-238 domestic production was axed in last year’s US Presidential budget. In the proposed budget for fiscal year 2011, it’s about a 20 million dollar line item, shared equally between the Department of Energy and NASA. I asked physicist Dr. Steven Koonin, who’s the Under Secretary for Science at the DOE, about this last week and he said he was aware of the issue, but that they are not near a point yet where they have to identify which existing facilities would be used. Twelve planetary missions are in danger of being scrubbed for lack of a power source—meaning lost jobs and a loss of world leadership in the field, not to mention all that potential knowledge—gone! At Congressional Visits Day, we were sure to ask each of the people we met with on the Hill to pledge their support to manufacture this critical material.

We traveled to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in the afternoon to get another perspective on the funding process. They submit the President’s annual budget proposal to Congress and serve to develop and execute it.

I was paired with Delphine Parodin and AAS President Debra Elmegreen through most of the meetings for CVD. Delphine, being from France, had a refreshing view of politics, tempered with a researcher’s depth of understanding of the foundations. I didn’t get to see everyone in action from our group of sixteen, but Joe Bernstein, Eric Hilton, Ori Fox and Adam Morgan stood out in their commitment to the cause.

In March, Debra Elmegreen spoke before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies. Her speech, kept to a strict three minutes, can be read online.

Upon casual acquaintance, Debra comes across as pleasant and harmless. She has an enchanting smile that encourages conversation. For our meetings on the Hill, she wore a grey suit with a flowered scarf and her AAS gold pin above her nametag. Disarming. The friendly, open exterior is shored up by an inner steely strength. When necessary, she takes charge and gets the job done. Until such a point is reached in negotiations, it’s easy to forget who you’re with. All that power, just below the surface. In the meetings we shared, she was a font of information when the going was good—with people who appreciated our message. But when opposition arose, she turned tenacious and swept them away with her elegantly expressed determination. I’m so glad she’s on our side!

Debra reminds everyone that astronomy serves to draw the young into science related careers, and is quick with her decadal survey summary. Research in astronomy enhances science and technology in general. Think about X-rays. Astronomers pioneered the technology now used in airport security scanners. Our image processing techniques are used in medicine and industry. Software developed to handle massive information flow is now used in countless applications worldwide and NASA-funded research even pumped up cyber leadership initiatives.

One never knows what applications basic research will have. Who thought lasers would have such an impact on our lives? Once called “a product looking for an application,” lasers are now critical for communication, banking, product scanning, medicine, remote sensing, targeting, military applications and many more things, including the space elevator. Budget cuts need to be smart and strategic, based on long-term gain. Cuts to scientific research and existing facilities are short-sighted and counterproductive to our goals. It’s a small amount for every taxpayer. One half of one penny of each tax dollar goes into the NASA budget. For Obama’s proposed budget for the 2012 fiscal year, for anyone with the Census Bureau’s median US household income, which is $49,777.00, that’s about $33.00 a year. We want a better world for our children and our children’s children. What’s it worth to you?

Thanks for listening. This is Diane Turnshek, signing off.

End of podcast:

365 Days of Astronomy
The 365 Days of Astronomy Podcast is produced by the Astrosphere New Media Association. Audio post-production by Preston Gibson. Bandwidth donated by and wizzard media. Web design by Clockwork Active Media Systems. You may reproduce and distribute this audio for non-commercial purposes. Please consider supporting the podcast with a few dollars (or Euros!). Visit us on the web at or email us at Until tomorrow…goodbye.