Federal Travel Restrictions will Hamper Innovation, Stunt Economic Growth

By Bassam Z. Shakhashiri, American Chemical Society and Robert Byer, American Physical Society

Scientific and medical research conducted in our nation’s laboratories and agencies that sustains national defense, addresses health challenges and develops energy security could be severely hampered under new rules imposed by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) that limit federal employees’ travel to participate in meetings. Legislation pending on Capitol Hill, such as H.R. 4631, the Government Spending Act, could go even further with new requirements.

OMB has ordered federal agencies to reduce travel and meeting expenses by 30 percent in fiscal year 2013. Its directive also requires senior-level administrative staff to review the costs of participating in meetings that exceed $100,000 and cap at $500,000 the amount any agency can spend on a single meeting. Congress has legislation pending that contains provisions more onerous than those in the OMB memo.

Science and technology are key drivers for American innovation, and to work optimally they require unhampered collaboration and communication among multiple institutions and laboratories. If scientists can’t collaborate, their research, which drives economic growth, would be severely constrained. And if they can’t communicate, project costs would rise, and taxpayers’ dollars would be wasted. The OMB rules, and pending Hill legislation, pose significant risks for American innovation.

Consider the case of an anti-cancer drug, developed by Plexxikon, a company based in Berkeley, Calif. Plexxikon capitalized on high-intensity X-ray studies carried out by a team of scientists at three geographically diverse national laboratories: SLAC in Menlo Park, Calif., Argonne National Lab near Chicago, Ill., and Lawrence Livermore Lab in Berkeley, Calif. These scientists collaborated to probe the molecular structure of proteins in malignant melanomas. The result: a highly promising drug known as vemurafenib. Conferences were invaluable to the success of this project.

Now let’s look at the consequence of budgetary caps contained in the OMB regulations and the pending legislation. Scientists are notoriously thrifty as convention bureaus attest, but even on a barebones budget a typical attendee will spend about $2,500 for travel, lodging, meals and registration fees for a weeklong meeting. The OMB cap of $500,000, if imposed, could limit the number of participants to 200 from any single agency.

To put such a number in context, the U.S. Department of Energy, for example, supports 17 national laboratories that directly employ about 16,000 scientists and engineers and 100,000 more workers as contractors. The OMB rules apply to all of them. Other federal agencies, such as the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Standards and Technology and National Institutes of Health are also covered by the OMB regulations.

At the March Meeting of the American Physical Society, 600 or more researchers from DOE facilities usually attend. Under the OMB rules and the pending legislation, two thirds of them would not be able to do so. They would not be able to exchange ideas with the other 9,000-plus scientists from around the world who typically participate.

The American Chemical Society’s (ACS) two annual national meetings, which each attract on average 13,000 chemists and chemical engineers and play a major role in germinating transformational research, draw about 800 federal scientists. Under the new rules and the pending legislation, 50 percent of those federal scientists could be cut off from the global chemistry community that participates in ACS meetings. These rules will not only adversely impact science, but also the American economy and thus, American taxpayers, whose dollars are an investment in scientific research.

Additionally, the OMB rules apply to agency program managers who administer federal grants. Wise decision-making requires familiarity with the latest discoveries, and scientific meetings provide administrators with the knowledge they require to do their jobs.

Scientific meetings provide much more than a venue for organized presentations by well-known scientists. They offer participants opportunities for synergies that are almost impossible to replicate in any other way. Impromptu conversations in the corridors outside the lecture rooms have led to transformational discoveries.

Building a better America requires making science a priority. It also requires giving America’s scientists the opportunity to capitalize on creativity. The OMB rules and their pending companion legislation will have extensive and unintended negative consequences on American science, innovation and economic prosperity.

Shakhashiri is president of the American Chemical Society. Byer is the former president of the American Physical Society. Reprinted from 9/10/12 with permission from
The Hill newspaper.