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By Michael Lucibella
In a recent letter to legislators, APS and 125 other scientific organizations sharply criticized restrictions imposed on government researchers’ travel to conferences. The letter, addressed to the chairs of the Senate Appropriations Committee, expressed “deep concern” over the negative impacts that burdensome paperwork, expensive oversight, and long approval time were having on research.
“Current policies are reducing government scientists’ and engineers’ participation in scientific and technical conferences while the administrative cost of overseeing these activities has increased significantly,” the letter reads.
Three years ago, at the behest of the Office of Management and Budget, the Department of Energy (DOE) and the Department of Defense (DOD) instituted strict approval requirements for scientists wanting to attend conferences. At DOE, for example, the deputy secretary must approve total agency conference travel above $100,000 while the secretary needs to sign off if the total exceeds $500,000. The DOD instituted even more stringent oversight requirements.
This followed a presidential executive order in November 2011 requiring agencies to more carefully scrutinize how they pay for conferences. This resulted in an official OMB memorandum in May 2012 requiring that agencies spend 30 percent less on travel the following year for three years. The catalyst was a series of instances of excessive spending by the General Services Administration and Department of Justice in 2010, which were widely reported in the press in April 2012.
In March 2015, the Government Accountability Office issued a critical report on the impact of these requirements. They found that the regulations significantly reduced the number of government scientists attending conferences and dramatically increased approval times and the cost of oversight.
“DOD and DOE officials and professional society representatives provided examples of changes in conference participation — particularly reduced attendance — since implementing the departments’ policies. In addition, the length of the review and approval processes under the DOD and DOE conference policies has increased, resulting in scientists and engineers not always receiving timely decisions about conference requests to determine whether they could take on active conference roles or take advantage of lower-cost travel arrangements,” the report found.
The GAO focused strictly on defense research, but the Department of Energy’s travel restrictions apply to civilian research as well. The report did not look at how the restrictions were affecting scientists in other government institutions or agencies, such as the National Air and Space Administration or the National Science Foundation.
The additional scrutiny has decreased conference participation by government scientists. Though data is incomplete, labs reported a decrease in scientist participation at conferences almost across the board. Some conferences saw decreases in federal participation by as much as 95 percent.
Wait times for approvals have dramatically increased. Across the five DOD research divisions examined by GAO, average wait times for approval ballooned from seven days to more than four months. The report went on to find that due to these long delays, many scientists are not presenting research at conferences, and those that do are missing out on cheaper airfare rates and lower registration and hotel costs.
There is evidence that the additional oversight eats into a portion of the remaining travel budget. For example, at Los Alamos National Laboratory, oversight costs for conference travel ballooned from $0.2 million a year in fiscal years prior to May 2012, to $1.6 million in 2013.
The agencies have been taking steps to streamline the process. The report did find some evidence that more scientists were able to attend meetings in 2014 than 2013 or 2012, as researchers have become more accustomed to the regulations.
The GAO report also recommends that the agencies set clear timeframes to make decisions and establish a plan to evaluate how the regulations are applied.
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