Photo Credit: Peter Cutts, CSSP May 2015 Meeting

Photo Credit: Peter Cutts, CSSP May 2015 Meeting

Ever since a group of GSA employees misbehaved at a meeting (decidedly not scientific) in Las Vegas, 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

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 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.

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. 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.

Because it doesn’t appear to be getting any better for federal employees, the Council of Scientific Society Presidents has joined with many other scientific societies, led by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, to solicit 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.

That letter shows how the path from Gila monster venom to the diabetes medication Exenatide runs through an American Diabetes Association meeting in 1996, where Department of Veterans Affairs research Dr. John Eng presented his research, catching the attention of a small biotech company, which developed the drug, now used by millions of people to manage Type 2 Diabetes.

I believe there are dozens of stories like that: examples of a specific collaboration or project or a step in someone’s career development that may never have occurred were it not for participation in a conference or meeting. Since current OMB regulations affect federal employees and contractors most, examples that involve collaborations with colleagues at federal agencies, national labs, or federal research institutes are highly encouraged to submit their stories. We hope that you will publicize this grassroots effort by encouraging your members to go to People accessing that link will be asked to submit their story of collaboration that started at a conference and led to an exciting new discovery or that showed how that scientist was exposed to a new way of thinking that was crucial to his or her success.

The goal is to take these stories to policymakers to ensure our community is heard on this critical issue. With your help, it is possible to get a better policy in place that enables our valuable federal scientists to contribute to the well-being of our nation.