Public policy is a catchall phrase that includes actions of and interactions with both Congress and the Executive branch. It also captures activities of the AAS that can have an impact in the wider arena of public life, such as creating and endorsing statements related to science, science policy, or other issues.
The government has other impacts on astronomy besides the obvious one of providing funds for research and research facilities. Policies on education, such as stipend levels allowed under research grants, or student loan tax credits are both set by the government. Policies regarding land use can have an obvious impact on astronomy. Governmental panels can make decisions about how many federal agencies should fund astronomy. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) manages spectrum use and can have both helpful and harmful impacts on astronomy.
Occasionally, an action by government that could have a negative (or positive) impact on astronomy must be stopped (or supported). At these times, a rapid, grassroots-level action on the part of the AAS membership can create a truly positive result in Congress or in other areas of government.
When one of these times arrives, the Policy Fellow works with the Executive Officer and the Committee on Astronomy and Public Policy creates an AAS Action Alert. This is then emailed to the appropriate sub-group of the AAS membership.
No. A single letter to a Senator or Congressman once per year is simply not enough to make your elected representative notice your needs or issues. Regular communication can be tremendously beneficial and the AAS strongly encourages AAS members to develop personal relationships with their elected officials or their staff.
For an issue to become important in a Congressional office, approximately five letters must arrive in a given week. This number is a bit larger for Senatorial offices. When an AAS Action Alert is sent out, we have heard from Congressional offices that many hundreds of letters (from AAS members only in several cases) have convinced the member of Congress to take action on the issue.