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When Congress approved legislation last fall lowering the FY2000 cap on travel allocations for the DOE national laboratories, its intent was to discourage abuse of the allocations, not to impede the progress of scientific research already being conducted at those labs. Nevertheless, some laboratory directors say the cuts are doing just that. And as they struggle to re-prioritize travel under the new conditions, conference attendance is the first thing to go.
According to Robert Woods, senior program officer for DOE's Office of High Energy and Nuclear Physics, the problem dates back about 5 years ago, when a report by the Inspector General auditing travel by DOE contractors found instances of gross misuse. As a result, travel allocations have come under close scrutiny and funds have been steadily declining. But the FY2000 travel allocation was particularly draconian: an overall cut of about 35% to $500 million for agency travel as a whole. Initially, the DOE parceled out a one-third cut across the board for all laboratories, although it was ultimately able to restore the travel budgets for Fermilab and SLAC at their FY1999 levels.
Other labs were less fortunate. James Siegriest, who heads the physics division at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBL), reports that because the facility lacks an onsite accelerator, scientists must travel elsewhere to conduct experiments, such as those at the newly operational BaBar particle detector at SLAC's B-meson facility. LBL is also committed to collaborative construction projects at other facilities, most notably upgrades to the CDF and D0 detectors at Fermilab. Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) also conducts much of its high energy and nuclear physics experimental work offsite, according to John McClelland, LANL's deputy division director of physics, including taking shifts at the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory. It is also heavily involved in construction of the BOONE neutrino experiment at Fermilab, and installation of two detectors as part of the PHOENIX project at the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider.
The result, says Woods, is to place experimental travel in direct competition with travel to meetings - and the meetings nearly always lose out. Both Siegrist and McClelland report that they are giving top travel priority to meeting existing commitments in new construction and ongoing experimental work, with any residual allocations going toward conference attendance. However, says Siegrist, "We're already operating under stringent [travel] conditions, so the only way to absorb additional cuts is to reduce trips." That means being more selective about which conferences would prove the most useful in terms of professional interaction.
The impact has certainly been felt at the upcoming APS April meeting. APS Meetings Manager Donna Baudrau reports that the number of abstracts submitted is down from about 1000 in 1998 to 800 this year. While attendance at the April meeting has been declining for several years, this is the sharpest drop since 1992, and McClelland, for one, believes it is a direct result of decreased travel from the national laboratories.
Some relief has been forthcoming. Additional funds have been allocated to enable post-doctoral and other early-career physicists to attend scientific conferences. And LBL's management has come through with some additional allocations for the Physics Department. Still, "At these new lower [travel] levels, we can barely meet our existing commitments and there's nothing left over for conference attendance, or meeting offsite with collaborators, - the kinds of things that keep us visible and active participants in the scientific community," says McClelland.
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