Episode 1: Science Policymakers’ Required Reading

Every Monday afternoon, the Washington, DC, science policy community clicks open an email newsletter from the American Institute of Physics’ science policy news service, FYI, to learn what they’ve missed. We spoke with Mitch Ambrose and Will Thomas about this amazing must-read: how it comes together in real time and what it reveals about the ever-changing world of science policy itself.

Find FYI’s trackers and subscribe to their newsletters at aip.org/fyi.


Josh Trapani: Welcome to The Ongoing Transformation, a podcast from Issues in Science and Technology. Issues is a quarterly journal published by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, and Arizona State University. I’m Joshua Trapani, senior editor at Issues in Science and Technology. I’m joined by Mitch Ambrose and Will Thomas from the American Institute of Physics science policy news service called FYI. Their newsletters and tools for tracking science policy budgets and legislation are key assets in the science policy community. On this episode, we’ll talk to Mitch and Will about their view of science policy and get a look under the hood at what goes into creating FYI’s newsletters and resources. Welcome, Mitch and Will, it’s a real pleasure to have you with us.

Thomas: Thanks very much. We’re pleased to be here.

Ambrose: Great to be on.

Trapani: So FYI describes itself as an authoritative news and resource center for federal science policy. And I’d like to start with a big picture question: How do you define science policy?

Ambrose: So there’s a very classical formulation of that, that’s the two sides of the coin of science for policy and policy for science. And I have nothing against that formulation, I think it is helpful to broadly bin the types of issues you come across. But we don’t really think about it in that way in FYI. We approach it in a variety of ways. We were not thinking about “Oh, this is a policy for science story,” and “Oh, this is a science for policy story.” We’re focused on various aspects of the process. You know, there’s the very formal set of budget documents that gets through the annual appropriations process following the President’s budget request to the House and Senate appropriations bills to the final outcome. There’s a whole procedure around that and a whole cast of characters involved in that process, and really getting a sense of what individual people’s priorities are, and the whole machinery of how priorities get set. And that’s just one lane of science policy. But then there’s all sorts of other lanes as well that we pay attention to. So we take this very procedural focus, I would say.

Thomas: Yeah, I think of it as a very empirical approach. What is science policy? Well, it’s what policymakers are talking about. What challenges are they facing? What opportunities do they see? What proposals are they putting out there? And what kinds of arguments are they making for and against different sorts of things? And when you do that, you pick up on a lot of things that maybe you didn’t even think about as science policy ahead of time, or you find that there’s an issue in some area of policy, like trade relations, for example, that turns out to have a very technical dimension to it. The nice thing about taking that approach as a news organization is that you’re always talking about things that are definitely on policymakers’ agendas, whether it’s in Congress, or in the agencies, or in universities, or among advocacy groups.

Trapani: How do you draw that line? If there’s something that maybe hasn’t traditionally been part of science policy but it comes up, how do you decide: this is in or this is out? Or is that not how it works?

Thomas: Yeah, I think it’s a really cogent question that we’re asking ourselves all the time. You know, we work for the American Institute of Physics, which is a federation of 10 member societies—American Physical Society, Optica, the American Astronomical Society, and so on. And so we’re always asking ourselves, “What sorts of issues might they be interested in?” That’s a very practical way of delimiting ourselves because we’re a team of four people and we can only cover so much.

And then there are certain issues that just kind of creep onto our agenda after a while. For example, the meteorologists have been concerned for quite some time about federal allocation of radio spectrum because with new 5G devices coming online, that can interfere with weather satellite observations, for example. And so for a long time, we were interested in this issue in a very, very top-level way. We just saw spectrum meetings, and we took note of the fact—“Oh, there’s something with spectrum going on.” And then starting about two, three years ago, this became a really, really serious issue. We decided that we had to learn about it because there was a lot of action going on, a lot of arguments between federal agencies—between the Federal Communications Commission, NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Department of Defense—and so suddenly, something that had not been part of our agenda at all was part of our agenda simply because it cropped up and you couldn’t ignore it anymore.

Ambrose: I’d like to build on Will’s comments there. To the broader point of how would you bound science policy—setting aside bandwidth constraints—how would you bound the topic space? I would say, well, one approach would be: OK. There are various committees in Congress that have control over science. There’s the appropriations committees, and there’s no one appropriations committee for science; it’s distributed across many different subcommittees. So the subcommittee that funds the Department of Energy also funds the Army Corps of Engineers. And then there’s a separate subcommittee that funds NASA, NSF, and NIST, but also the FBI, and all sorts of other agencies that have nothing really to do with science policy, in a narrow sense. So you could take a very structured approach to just looking at specific committees that have jurisdiction over science.

But what we found, especially over the past few years, is that science policy is cropping up across many, many committees that we would never expect. The Judiciary Committee, for instance, is considering immigration reforms, some of which have very big implications, potentially, for the science workforce. You have many, many committees, beyond even the Intelligence Committee, that are getting interested in the topic of what I’ll call research security, which is largely tied to the US-China dynamic, where there’s many people across committees in Congress that believe that China’s taking advantage of the US research system in various ways. That’s just become such a burning topic that it’s showing up in all sorts of places we never looked at.

We have a congressional tracking service. And I had a keyword search for various science terms. All of a sudden, I started hearing the FBI director start talking about science. And I’m like, “Huh, that’s interesting.” So there’s a whole new set of institutions that we had to learn about, as essentially an emerging area of science policy. And I would say as well, and we can get into this later—there’s a whole series of prosecutions of scientists through the Justice Department’s China Initiative. For my first few years in this job, I never looked at court documents at all—it just didn’t come up as an area of physical science policy. But now, when scientists are starting to get prosecuted, now I’m looking through the PACER system, and it’s a whole new set of procedures that I would argue is now part of science policy based on the current dynamics.

Thomas: It’s an interesting thing. I mean, in 2018, when the FBI director first started talking about this, we were one of the very few organizations that was really paying attention. And we noticed that it started cropping up in additional congressional committees, and there were a series of members of Congress who were really interested in the issue. So now you have large petitions at Stanford University and other universities and large protest movements against this China Initiative. I’ve seen it on the evening news—but that’s been only within the past year or two. By taking this empirical approach, we’ve been there all along, and we’ve been tracing the different facets of the issue. That’s one area where our, for the lack of a better term, empirical approach has really kind of paid off.

Trapani: This is really interesting, you have this really broad, comprehensive, holistic view of science policy that lets you almost see out ahead of where things are. I was wondering if you wanted to provide any insights on what you see as the most important things happening right now, that people either aren’t paying attention to or aren’t paying sufficient attention to, in the realm of science policy?

Ambrose: To build on what Will just said, I would say the China Initiative itself is something that wasn’t being paid attention to enough until fairly recently. And now, as Will mentioned, you have these campaigns of scientists at different universities that are starting to really mobilize around that issue. When this initiative was first announced, I think in late 2018, it took quite a while—after a few of these prosecutions of scientists to sink in, you know, what are the effects on the academic community. And now people are going to pay much more attention to it, and it’s getting a lot more media coverage broadly. So I would say that that issue is now getting the attention it warrants.

But there are others, like the spectrum issue that Will mentioned is another one that really burst onto the scene. And you know, the FCC, if you had been following filing documents for FCC going back several years—and this was actually the topic of a recent hearing in the Science Committee where essentially the chair of the committee, Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson, made the point that had the science agencies been paying attention to these FCC proceedings more closely, they would have been able to see this coming years in advance, this issue of spectrum interference with Earth observation satellites or astronomical observations. But it was just a foreign area of policy, even to the science agencies themselves, and it’s quite arcane. And she made this remark about essentially, you need lawyers to decipher this sort of thing for you. But now that issue blew up, you had these fights between agencies over spectrum allocations, and now it’s getting quite a bit of attention.

One other one that I’ll mention quickly is this issue of light pollution from satellite mega-constellations. And what it really took was that first launch of a bunch of satellites from SpaceX’s Starlink constellation, and then the astronomers are like, “Oh, no, this is gonna be a huge deal.” So now it’s getting a ton of attention. There’s a few issues like that, that just within the past few years have burst onto the scene for our reporting, that I think if people had perhaps been a bit savvier, [they] would have seen them coming down the pipe. We didn’t forecast those issues until they burst into public view ourselves, so we’re not claiming special knowledge in this area. But I think those are some good recent examples of how these hot topics can really come out of nowhere, almost, in science policy.

Thomas: One thing you asked, is enough attention being paid to an issue? And the question is really, attention by whom? Sometimes there are people who are fairly niche who are really, really interested in an issue, and nobody else pays any attention to it whatsoever. So FCC filings, for example, the telecommunications industry is paying attention to that all the time. But scientists weren’t. The scientists didn’t know how to do it. Scientists’ lawyers … didn’t know how to pay attention to it. And so it’s only recently, years after the initial filing, that they really glommed on to it and said, “Hey, actually, this is a really important issue, and it could cause us some fairly serious problems.”

Similarly, we have two issues that are really big in science policy right now—we mentioned the China Initiative and all these arrests of people with Chinese backgrounds, be they immigrants from China or visitors from China or simply Chinese Americans, and then you have other sets of people who are interested in diversity, equity, and inclusion issues. And those really aren’t the same groups, even though they’re united by a common cause of justice and civil liberties and that sort of thing. So one of the things that we hope that we do—we don’t know if we do it or not; we don’t know how effective we are in doing it—is if there’s a fairly niche issue, or if there’s a community that should be paying attention to it, that we can help alert them to the existence of these issues and help to get them up to speed on the nitty gritty of it as best as we can.

Trapani: I’d like to turn to FYI itself. There is a lot of reporting, there’s a weekly newsletter, there’s a budget tracker, you track people in the science policy world. And it gets circulated around the science policy world quite broadly. Before I came to Issues in Science and Technology, I was in several other science policy roles, and when I first learned about FYI, I was like, “Oh my gosh, I have to go subscribe to this immediately.” I learned about it in a way that a lot of people do, which is people will forward it on or forward on chunks of it.

The thing is that once you subscribe, you realize that a lot of the really smart people who seem like they’re in the know in your organization are actually just forwarding on bits and pieces of FYI. And then you get to laugh at those people in your mind. But within a few weeks, you find yourself turning around and engaging in exactly the same behavior, because it is just such a valuable resource for the community. I was wondering if you could just talk a little bit, because it is so comprehensive, about how do you go about gathering up all the things that go into the weekly newsletter or the other tools that you have? And what kind of analysis goes into that?

Thomas: That is really our secret sauce. I’ll let Mitch take the lead.

Ambrose: I’d first like to just sketch a bit of the history of FYI, I think it’d be instructive at this stage. It was started in the late 80s by essentially one person, Dick Jones. And at that time, it was just distributed literally by paper mail for the first few years of its existence, but it did have certain elements that have continued through today.

As I mentioned at the outset, we have this very formalized way of covering the federal budget process, for instance. There’s a series of documents that are produced through that: there’s the President’s budget request, then the House Appropriations Committee advances its set of bills that have reports with all sorts of detailed policy instruction. Then the Senate will eventually do its version of those same set of reports. And then they finally, usually several weeks late, have a final agreement. And there’s documents associated with every stage and from its outset, FYI, its bread and butter has been stepping through those foundational science policy documents. And that continues through the current day, except we’re much more in-depth than we used to be, which I’ll get into in a bit. And also, FYI covered a lot of speeches from policymakers, and did still have that kind of people-focused approach. But it was essentially just one person, for the most part, up until when the founder, Dick Jones, retired in about 2015.

And then AIP reflected at that point, people seem to really like this type of information. Let’s really scale this up. So over the coming couple of years, we scaled up to four people. And that has really enabled us to [make] a sea change in FYI reporting, where we launched this weekly newsletter, called FYI This Week, that is giving you a preview of what’s coming down the pipe in the coming week or so, a summary of the big things that happened in the previous week, and then all sorts of additional information like an event calendar and a roundup of job opportunities, and also a roundup of other people’s reporting. And we’re very generous in acknowledging just good science policy reporting that we see. Every edition has about 100 or so links at the end. It’s almost like this little appendix of interesting science policy articles that the team sees throughout the previous week.

I’m always floored at how much science policy reporting there is, if you just know where to look. And it was in the process of constructing this very comprehensive, weekly newsletter that we started to really formalize a way for surveilling what’s going on. And we have all sorts of fishing lines, I like to think, out looking for relevant events, relevant reports, there’s a series of information streams that we’ve set up in order to have this week-over-week reporting on what’s happening—and trying not just to catch the newsiest things. We do give those more attention, but also including all sorts of links to less newsy things—but you can kind of see something’s bubbling up. And so we have this way of, across the whole landscape, we try to pay attention, essentially, to everything—as much as we can at once. I can’t say everything at once. By paying attention to the entire landscape, or as much as you can at one time, then you can start to see these little deltas of activity in different committees or different agencies. And then eventually, that might bubble up into something that we write a full article about. And that’s, we have this thing called the FYI Bulletin, which has existed from the beginning, which is our full length reporting. So we have this interplay between the weekly newsletter, which is OK, here’s the week-to-week churn, and then once something becomes a big enough story, we do a Bulletin on it. And I’ll stop there and see if, Will, you want to add to that.

Thomas: Yeah, I mean, it’s really just being knowledgeable about what sorts of documents are apt to contain… We develop a baseline knowledge of what exists right now, we call it the landscape of science policy. And the more you can know about that, the more you can see where it changed. Mitch is apt to call this a delta, with his physics background—and then you learn about the windows where these things are apt to come out.

So I mentioned the documents, but there are also congressional hearings. And you know, 95% of what’s said at a congressional hearing is not, frankly, going to be very interesting—to be honest, like 99%. But there’s always going to be some little thing, maybe it’s in the opening statement, maybe it’s later on in the hearing, maybe it’s something the witnesses say, and you can glom onto that, if you know what’s already out there, and say, “That’s new, I have not heard that before. This is something that we have to pay attention to.”

All the federal agencies have these advisory committees of outside scientists, and that tends to be where they talk about what’s going on with their programs. Is something over budget, is there something that they’re worried about, what’s their latest initiative in research or in some other aspect of their activities. It used to be that we would be listening to these things live, and that ultimately became untenable because one, there’s only going to be a little bit that you really, truly need to pay attention to, and also there’s lots of different things going on at once.

So we started to be a little bit smarter about recording these things, feeding them into these new AI transcription services so that we can scan what was said a lot more easily, and it’s been just really a series of small innovations that lets us consume more and more and more, even though we’re a really small team, we can pay attention to an astonishingly large amount of things. And then things that we miss, we depend on reporters for other outlets. We can say, Science magazine, it has excellent reporters, SpaceNews is just awesome, awesome reporting in the space sector, Nature—it goes on and on. What does it, Mitch, National Journal that’s been reporting on the science policy legislation?

Ambrose: Yeah, there’s a particular reporter at National Journal who’s gotten very interested in science policy.

Thomas: And they just came out of nowhere, and they do a lot of important work for you. And we always say like, we’re only four people, we’re not going to only cite ourselves, because there are a lot of people who are paying attention to a lot of things we simply can’t pay attention to. And we want to acknowledge them as part of this science policy news ecosystem.

Trapani: It’s remarkable how much information you all process and put into your stuff. I would have thought that there would have been an army over there, so I was really curious as to how you did it. It sounds like FYI has grown—in terms of sophistication, in terms of people—in terms of the issues over the last few years. What do you see as coming next for FYI? Or what would you like to see next?

Ambrose: One other thing I didn’t mention that we launched over the past few years, in addition to the weekly newsletter, is we have this series of trackers. They’re essentially landing pages on our website. We have a budget tracker, which has very fine-grained information on, for a given agency, what is the funding outlook for [a] particular project? Then we have a leadership tracker, which is the “who are in positions of power over the science agencies in some way?”—both people going through the Senate confirmation process, but also a whole constellation of people who are career officials that don’t typically turn over with a given administration. And then finally, we have a bill tracker, which is an index of key legislation relevant to the physical sciences.

It just gives you this whole map of in these different categories of data—budget data, people data, and legislative data—what’s going on? To your question about some new things we’d like to do right now, each of those trackers is in a pretty rudimentary stage. We’d really like to take each of them to the next level, and build out what we kind of call to ourselves an information architecture. And how do you provide some extra context around all the information that’s provided in there? Particularly with budget information for large facilities as they’re going through the process, for instance, it can be difficult to interpret the significance of certain changes in the funding profile.

Thomas: If I can offer an example: NASA launches science missions, right? And their funding will go on an arc, and one day, you’ll see they’re going to cut the budget for the science mission by 80%. Well, yes, that’s because it’s launching—it’s not because they don’t like it. And we don’t communicate that in any way in the budget tracker. As it stands right now, you just have to be aware of that, whether by reading our bulletins or because you’re an insider. So that’s what Mitch means by context.

Ambrose: We think you could even make, beyond just the contextual information, you know, building it into a richer resource for people. The astronomy and astrophysics community just came out with their latest decadal survey, an extremely important prioritization report for that discipline. And a big part of that exercise is, you know, constructing different budget wedges of, how much money will we have in a given amount of time to do a flagship space telescope mission versus a ground-based telescope? And how do we fit that under certain budget guidance that we’ve gotten from the agencies? We feel like we could, for instance, build out our budget tracker into a tool to help those types of planning exercises—really look at what past budget wedges were like for different sets of projects, how did that fit under a given constraint. And also looking forward as to what the current projections are, adding that up in what’s known as a sand chart and seeing if you’re going to be able to fit under a certain budget target. That’s just one of many examples I could give of how you could make richer information resources that aren’t strictly news, per se, but we think could provide, both in aiding our own understanding of these processes but also providing tools for the scientific community to understand what’s going on. So a lot of this falls under a concept we’ve thought about of establishing almost like a research hub for science policy to complement the journalism that FYI does.

Thomas: When you’re a news organization, you accumulate a lot of information over time. Something you knew as a fact last year may no longer be true this year. And you can follow FYI, maybe if you do very studiously, you’ll be really up on the issue. But if you haven’t been an absolute scholar on this issue, we’d like to have a place where you can go so that you can learn everything that we’ve learned about this issue and have the most up-to-date information. And that would really make us almost as much of a research organization as it would make us a news organization.

The fact is, we have four people who work for FYI: me and Mitch, Adria Schwarber and Andrea Peterson, and none of us have backgrounds in journalism. We all are in science or history of science or something like that. We’re all researchers in one way or another. And so we’re not, in some sense, content just to write news articles—we want to share our knowledge with the world, so to speak. That’s kind of the central idea, is becoming more of a research organization. There are multiple ways in which we can do that. And expanding our trackers, creating these issue guides, those are two facets of what we’d like to do. We just have to find a logical way to expand that doesn’t put too much pressure on us because we’re pretty much at the red line as it is.

Trapani: Figuring out how to expand, reach new audiences, and create new resources while at the red line is a challenge for Issues too. We’re inspired by what you’re doing at FYI. On behalf of myself, Issues in Science and Technology, and probably thousands of people who work in science policy fields, I’d like to thank you for all you do and all the tools that you put out there.

Thomas: Thanks so much! It’s been really enjoyable.

Ambrose: And thanks for the opportunity to come on the podcast.

Trapani: Thank you for joining us for this episode of The Ongoing Transformation. If you have any comments, please email us at [email protected] and visit us at issues.org for more conversations and articles. I’m Josh Trapani, senior editor of Issues in Science and Technology. See you next time.