Federal Travel Restrictions Impact Scientific Meetings

By Michael Lucibella

March mtg 2013 lobby

Photo by Ken Cole

APS members converse during this year’s March Meeting in Baltimore.

Scientific conferences are feeling the effects of the U.S. federal government’s curtailment of spending on travel. Scientists have widely criticized the move to limit their ability to travel.

“I don’t believe the administration understands what a science meeting really is,” said Stephen Mackwell, an adjunct professor at Rice University and director of the Lunar and Planetary Institute. “It’s not a boondoggle; it’s the life blood of the scientific community.”

Conferences have been hit with a double whammy during the last 12 months. In May of 2012, the federal government adopted new travel restrictions for its employees following the General Services Administration scandal. Then, “sequestration” took effect on March 1 of this year, taking another slice out of scientists’ travel budgets.

Different federal agencies have adopted diverse travel review policies. In the Department of Energy, if DOE scientists collectively request spending of more than $100,000 on travel to one meeting, the Deputy Secretary has to sign off on it. If they request more than $500,000, the DOE Secretary has to sign off. In the Department of Defense, travel needs to be authorized by the relevant branch’s chief of staff.

The travel restrictions have had various effects. Astronomy-related conferences have been particularly hard hit. The Eighth International Conference on Mars, scheduled for July at Caltech, was postponed for a year. For this year’s Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, only a hundred of the usual 170 civil servants were authorized to attend, resulting in the cancellation of several events featuring high-ranking officials from NASA headquarters.

“They decided not to come so their slots could be filled by the scientists who needed to come to the meeting,” said Mackwell, who organized the conference. “This is a community that is powered by conversations and discussions… So much of what goes on at these science meetings is not what goes on during the sessions.”

This year’s meeting of the APS Topical Group on Shock Compression of Condensed Matter, scheduled for early July in Seattle, looks like it will be affected because of the large number of national laboratory scientists who usually attend. David Moore, a researcher at Los Alamos and organizer of the meeting, said that the Department of Energy authorized just over half of scientists who submitted requests.

“Even if the DOE agrees with the latest submittal…the impact of cutting from 227 to 155 isn’t devastating for the conference, but it does hurt,” Moore said. Moore added that the Shock meeting will still likely reach the minimum number needed to break even because it is being held in conjunction with the annual meeting of the International Association for the Advancement of High Pressure Science and Technology, which takes place in the United States only once every 20 years. However, as many as one-third to one-half of the session chairs may have to be reassigned.

Last fall’s Division of Nuclear Physics (DNP) meeting in Newport Beach, Calif., was one of the first APS meetings held after the imposition of the new travel restrictions, and before the onset of sequestration.

“We didn’t get approval for lab scientists to travel to that meeting until two weeks before the meeting,” said Robert McKeown, a researcher at Jefferson Lab and organizer of the conference. “I think the system at DOE is working much better now.”

He added that he didn’t think there would be a big change in this year’s attendance rates for the DNP meeting. Speaking more broadly, he said who attends the meetings can be as important as how many attend.

“The largest effect that I worry about is on young people whose careers are dependent on showing their work at conferences and networking and meeting people,” McKeown said. “Certainly the people at the beginning of their careers will be the most affected.”

McKeown added that approval delays meant that scientists would miss out on cheaper airfare and early registration, ultimately costing the departments more money.

“There has been some study of that and people have established that there are extra costs with the new procedures in place,” McKeown said.

In an interview published in the May issue of APS News, the outgoing Director of the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, William Brinkman, said he didn’t think the restrictions were saving the department money.

“I think we’re spending more on the bureaucracy than the savings we might accumulate from restricting conference attendance,” Brinkman said.

According to the Office of Management and Budget, the federal agencies have saved about $2 billion in total over the last two fiscal years.

The Department of Energy declined to comment.

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