APS News

New Federal Limits on Travel Could Decimate Some Meetings

Organizers of scientific meetings are concerned that new regulations issued by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), limiting travel for federal employees, could dramatically reduce meeting attendance.

In a memo dated May 11, the OMB issued regulations aimed at cutting travel spending by 30 percent through 2016. If an agency, such as the Department of Energy, wants to spend more than $100,000 to send people to a single conference, authorization would be needed from the deputy secretary, while more than $500,000 would require the secretary of the agency to sign off. Conference organizers fear that it would be difficult to secure this authorization.

“That’s a disaster for our meeting,” said Cary Forest, Chair of APS’s Division of Plasma Physics. “Thirty percent of our attendees are from national labs.”

The DPP meeting has one of the highest proportions of federal employees and federal contractors. Forest estimated that they might be facing a deficit of 250 people at their meeting this October. He said that of the 1,700 attendees, about 500 are from national labs. Estimating that it takes $2000 to send an individual to a conference, Forest said that it likely costs the Department of Energy $1 million in travel costs, twice the amount needed to require authorization from Secretary Chu.

DPP holds APS’s third largest meeting, after the March Meeting and the Division of Fluid Dynamics annual meeting. APS doesn’t track how many federal employees attend each meeting, however other meetings that likely feature a large proportion of scientists from the national labs include the April Meeting, the Division of Nuclear Physics annual meeting, and the biennial meeting of the Topical Group on Shock Compression of Condensed Matter.

“Scientists at the national labs are at the top of their games,” Forest said. “Their science tends to be a little different from what is done at universities.”

The new limits will go into effect starting on October 1, 2012, the beginning of the 2013 fiscal year. Scientists employed by universities but receiving grants from the federal government are not subject to the new regulations.

The memo was issued in response to outrage over a scandal at the General Services Administration which spent $830,000 on a conference for 300 employees in Las Vegas. Several bills have also been introduced in Congress regulating federal travel, both more and less restrictive than the circulated memo. Some of the proposed rules include limiting federal employee travel to a single conference per year, no override to spend more than $500,000 per conference and stricter reporting requirements. None of the proposed legislation has been passed as APS News goes to press.

“The people who screwed up weren’t scientists,” Forest said. He added that there have even been cities like Las Vegas that have asked APS not to come back because the physicists spent too little money in the city.

Gray arrow   OMB Memo: Promoting Efficient Spending to Support Agency Operations Format - PDF


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