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Viewpoint

Cultural Differences

This month's "This Month in Physics History" describes the Shelter Island Conference of June 1947, a landmark event that led to deeper understanding of quantum field theory, in particular quantum electrodynamics, and to impressive agreement between that theory and experimental results. It set the agenda for a whole program of research in both theory and experiment in the immediate post-war period. Feynman looked back on it as the most important conference he had ever attended.

The venue for that conference was a beachfront hotel on an island off the eastern tip of Long Island in New York. The hotel was just opening for the summer season, and it most certainly was in a "resort area." In that light, it is interesting to contemplate DOE regulation O 110.3, which lays down a set of rules for DOE-sponsored conferences. In one section, conference organizers are admonished to "avoid selecting resort or recreational sites unless true cost savings will result." This is just one of a host of restrictions and prohibitions contained in this document, but it serves to illustrate the attitude of its author toward the scientists to whom it applies. One is not being told to avoid a resort or recreational site if it will be more expensive; rather, if there are two sites, equally expensive, one is being instructed to choose the less attractive one.

What is the rationale? I can think of two. First, says the DOE, even if money is not actually being wasted, one must avoid the appearance of enjoying oneself at government expense. Second, scientists are inherently irresponsible creatures, and if you turn them loose in a recreational area, they won't spend every waking hour attending the meeting, which is what the DOE wants them to do.

One could just shrug one's shoulders at this attitude, were it not for real-life examples of conferences, typically ones with organizers who are DOE employees or DOE contract employees (e.g. physicists at national labs), that may be affected by O 110.3. The accumulation of restrictions and prohibitions on who may attend these meetings, where they may be held, and what may be reimbursed is so onerous that their very existence can be placed in jeopardy.

Other instances of burdensome government regulations are not hard to find. After carefully considering competing sites, the APS decided to hold its March meeting in Montreal in 2004. The favorable Canadian exchange rate made this a particularly economical choice. Recently, though, travel to Canada has been reclassified as "foreign travel." (The reader may think that of course travel to Canada is foreign travel, since Canada is a foreign country. But this is really an administrative classification, independent of national boundaries. For example, travel to Hawaii could be designated as "foreign travel.") The consequent bureaucratic entanglements will make it much more difficult for some of the participants to be reimbursed for their expenses. The reason for the classification is presumably that travel to a foreign country has the ring of an exotic boondoggle even if it is actually less expensive, and therefore must be actively discouraged.

After 50 years of dealing with this kind of government regulation, scientists are by now inured to the irritating and the illogical. Still it is tempting to daydream a little about the simpler times of 1947 when, newly released from the shackles of wartime security, a group of two dozen scientists could avail themselves of a couple of thousand dollars from the National Academy, isolate themselves in a pleasant locale, and spend three days attending one of the most productive and historic conferences of the twentieth century.

-Alan Chodos


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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette