By Brian Jacobsmeyer
Amidst uncertainty due to a recent federal government shutdown and the ongoing sequester, leaders of the Division of Plasma Physics (DPP) nonetheless reported above-average attendance at the Division's 55th annual meeting held in Denver, Colorado in November. However, federal budget issues affected the meeting's outreach and education efforts and prevented dozens of undergraduate students from attending.
Historically, the Division's annual meeting has strongly focused on outreach initiatives, including teacher-tutorial workshops, a plasma-sciences exposition, and a poster session for presentations by undergraduate and high-school students. Between 40 and 50 students from around the country who participate in a fellowship program led by Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL), typically make up half of this poster session.
"We are a leader among the APS divisions in delivering science education and public outreach," said Mark Koepke, the Chair of DPP.
But this year, many of those students were unable to attend, primarily due to budgetary decisions made at the Department of Energy's Office of Science. PPPL had to cut not only its travel budget but also the total number of people it sent to the meeting, said Andrew Zwicker, PPPL's Head of Science Education and Outreach. Although a few students secured funding through their host institutions, the majority of the students who would usually attend had to stay home.
"To be part of the largest plasma physics meeting in the United States is a key component of the entire experience [for undergraduates]," said Zwicker. "You can have an internship without it, but it would be incomplete."
In addition to supporting undergraduate students, meeting organizers also host an outreach expo geared toward local middle and high school students. But the Office of Science's decision to limit funding — along with the ongoing sequester and tight travel budgets — also kept several outreach and education specialists at home.
"I think of the expo as a 15-exhibit extravaganza, but there are keystone exhibits," said Paul Miller, the DPP Outreach and Education Chair. "Princeton [Plasma Physics Laboratory] was one of those keystone exhibits."
In part because PPPL couldn't send enough people to the meeting, they eventually withdrew from the outreach expo. The funding uncertainty also led other key exhibitors to question their own participation.
"Losing [PPPL] immediately put the program into jeopardy," Miller added.
Organizers eventually decided to cancel the expo after additional exhibitors withdrew, including General Atomics. Nonetheless, the Division still hosted its annual session of workshops for science teachers.
Although outreach and education efforts were dealt a blow, overall attendance remained strong with over 1,600 participants. Pre-registration was low during the government shutdown, but the numbers surged quickly after it ended.
The jump in registration after the government's re-opening "was very noticeable," said Don Wise, Senior Meetings Registrar for APS.
Wise noted that attendance was at or above average for a meeting that has typically ranged between 1,400 and 1,800 attendees in recent years.
Koepke, DPP Division Chair, explained that the recent federal government shutdown had little impact on final attendance numbers. Proportionally speaking, he said the dominant impact occurred in the number of declined travel requests for government-lab education-and-outreach staff, resulting in the cancellation of the Plasma Expo at DPP2013. He added that steps will be taken to return all education and outreach activities to full strength for DPP2014.
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Staff Science Writer: Michael Lucibella