In July 2015, I wrote a column about the incredible hoops that federal scientists have to jump through in order to get permission to attend scientific conferences. Just to remind everyone, ever since a group of GSA employees misbehaved at a meeting (decidedly not scientific) in Las Vegas about five years ago, federal scientists have been subjected to very detailed scrutiny about their attendance at scientific conferences. This scrutiny was codified by the Office of Management and Budget in a memorandum issued to all federal agencies on May 11, 2012 https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/omb/memoranda/2012/m-12-12.pdf.
In theory, it makes sense to be sure that federal taxpayer money is being wisely spent on travel. The OMB memorandum puts in place a detailed process by which federal scientists must get approval to attend scientific conferences. The Government Accountability Office and the White House Office of Science and Technology, as well as a recent study conducted by an independent consulting firm (more on that later), have shown that the approval process has led to reductions in conference participation among federal scientists, to the detriment of science as a whole.
So it seems that in practice, government agencies have found it easier to just say “No, you can’t go” then go through the burdensome approval process. Many scientific societies, including those who are members of CSSP, have seen a major drop-off in attendance of federal employees. Since scientific society meetings are often places where people get continuing education or certification for specialties that affect human health and welfare (think radiation health physicists who must get certified yearly), this is a problem.
Perhaps even more importantly: Communication and collaboration are central to science and technology research. And scientific and technical meetings and conferences, whether big or small, bring researchers, educators, and federal program officers together to advance fields forward and drive innovation. The scientific method necessitates the collaborative procedure through a robust, personal exchange of knowledge among scientists from different fields. These meetings are not “add-ons” or “nice to do.” They are essential to the scientific process.
Policymakers in Congress and at the agencies say that the impacts of the OMB memorandum stem from a lack of understanding at the agency level of why scientific conferences are not fancy junkets, but important parts of the work of each and every member of our community.
But I am pleased to say that progress is being made. CSSP and several of its members (OSA, SPIE, ACS, to name a few) have been part of a coalition of scientific societies working for change. In July, we began soliciting stories on how scientific and technical conferences benefit science, technology, and society. The group of scientific societies launched this effort with a lead letter to the editor in the journal Science on July 9 http://www.sciencemag.org/content/349/6244/148.1.full. A lot of very useful information was received.
Then, late last year, the coalition led by SPIE, OSA, AAAS, and others successfully worked to get language into the 2016 omnibus appropriations funding bill for Financial Services and General Government that would give OMB authority to revise and clarify the 2012 memorandum. Specifically, the language now reads “None of the funds made available in this or any other appropriations Act may be used for travel and conference activities that are not in compliance with Office of Management and Budget Memorandum M-12-12 dated May 11, 2012, or any subsequent revisions to that memorandum [italics added for emphasis]. The addition of these few italicized words allowed the coalition to reach out to OMB and to express the need for an updated memorandum and to provide suggested changes to any new revised memo. CSSP will continue to work with the travel coalition and the Administration on this issue.
Another step in the right direction is the release of a new study on the impact of the restrictions on federal scientist travel to scientific meetings. The U.S. Army Research Laboratory selected PMIC Inc., a global consulting firm, to conduct an impact study to examine the GAO question: “To what extent does government S&T compliance with OMB 12-12 restrictive travel policy impact mission-critical outcomes in health, safety, and national security and defense; and what are the broader consequences over time to U.S. national economy, workforce and global technology leadership if the government S&T community remains subject to the restrictive travel policy.”
PMIC’s findings indicate that the restrictive conference and travel policy threatens to undermine the nation’s international scientific, technical, and economic leadership status. The absence of U.S. government scientists creates a void in global innovation and collaboration that will likely be filled by our competitors unless we act swiftly and decisively to remediate damage and mitigate inevitable further risks to government S&T force mission-critical goals attributable to restrictive travel policy. There is a lot of very good information in this study. If you would like to obtain a copy, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Finally, there is something you and your society members can do. If you are planning to visit or write your Representative or Senators in the near future, remind them of the importance of updating the OMB memorandum to allow more flexibility for federal scientists to attend scientific conferences. Especially restrictive is language regarding attendance at international scientific conferences, which are more important than ever before. If you would like help with the talking points for your visit, please contact Jennifer Douris, Government Affairs Director, SPIE at Jenniferd@spie.org.