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Defending Science Meetings

Scientific associations say new legislation that limits federal funding for conferences will hurt research.

By | September 24, 2012

image: Defending Science Meetings

At least eight scientific associations are banding together to oppose the Government Spending Accountability (GSA) Act—which aims to limit government funding of conferences and meetings—over concern that it could stifle scientific collaboration.

If enacted, the act—which passed in the House this month (September 11) and is expected to go before the Senate this fall—will cap federal agency spending on conferences at $500,000, require that each agency file quarterly reports on conference-related expenditures, and slash travel budgets by approximately 30 percent. The act aims to cut down on frivolous government spending, but many scientists worry that such cost-cutting measures will severely reduce the number of National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Science Foundation (NSF), and Department of Energy (DOE) researchers that attend scientific conferences—stunting the open exchange of knowledge and have an overall chilling effect on research progress.

Judith S. Bond, president of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB), wrote in a statement that the act would “impede the professional development of government scientists, hamper the ability of research agency staff to monitor scientific developments and make appropriate funding decisions based on new research, and reduce communication among researchers.”

The act, sponsored by Representative Joe Walsh (R-Ill), comes amid a storm of backlash to news earlier this year that the General Service Administration held a posh meeting in 2010 using taxpayer money. The agency, which works to provide basic services for federal agencies and employees, such as transportation, spent $822,000 to send 300 employees to a resort and spa in Las Vegas. “The GSA act will end the days of unnecessary boondoggles and lavish trips for federal bureaucrats,” Walsh said on the floor of the House on September 11, directly referencing the Las Vegas meeting.

But restrictions on government travel should not apply to scientific meetings and conferences, said Glenn S. Ruskin, a spokesperson for the American Chemical Society (ACS), which also opposes the act. “We completely understand the need for fiscal responsibility,” Ruskin said, but meetings such as the ACS’s annual conference, which draws more than 10,000 scientists, presenting nearly 9,000 papers, are entirely different from “government retreats.”

Ruskin calculates that the average per-person cost of attendance of a scientific conference—including airfare, meeting registration, hotel stay, meals, and incidentals—is generally around $2,500. “Basically it means that only 200 scientists from an agency could attend any one meeting,” Ruskin said. That could cut attendance at the annual the American Physical Society (APS) meeting by two thirds, he added, “because there’s a lot of physics research going on at the Department of Energy.” (The APS also opposes the GSA act.)

In the coming months, the ACS and the other allied scientific associations plan to hold meetings and information sessions on Capitol Hill to deter the act’s passage in the Senate, Ruskin says. So far, from responses he’s seen “there’s a degree of sympathy, but no one has said, ‘This is horrific and we need to stop this.’”

Both Ruskin and Jennifer Zeitzer, the director of legislative relations for FASEB, were surprised by how quickly the act was drafted, presented, and passed by the House. “There’s been this rush to try to crack down to make sure that what happened in General Service Administration can’t happen anywhere else,” Zeitzer said. “It’s well intentioned of course, but we need to put the breaks on and think this through, particularly since I’m unaware of any examples of the NIH or NSF being caught up in similar problems.”

The other agencies opposing the GSA act include:American Geophysical UnionAmerican Association for the Advancement of ScienceMaterials Research SocietyInstitute of Electrical and Electronics EngineersSPIE, The international society for optics and photonics

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Comments

Avatar of: Walt Hill

Walt Hill

Posts: 1457

September 24, 2012

As usual, the vast majority of government employees are made to suffer for the irresponsibility of the few. Scientific conferences are probably the best bang for the buck in leveraging scientific expertise and generating synergy among scientific ideas. Instead of cutting across the board and setting the same limit for each agency, it would seem reasonable to use per person limits. For instance, an agency could provide, say, $2,500 per senior scientific staff member (GS-13 and above?) and $1,000 for other professional staff for travel to conferences. Not only is the intense exchange of ideas valuable, it is great training for professional development for junior scientists. Just my $0.02 worth.

September 24, 2012

Walt -- my apologies. I misunderstood earlier and posted an incorrect comment. Sorry!

Avatar of: FJScientist

FJScientist

Posts: 52

September 24, 2012

Agreed with Walt Hill. Provide a budget with a defined dollar amount. That is what most extramural researchs have in their grants. I come in at more like $1800/meeting (my typical budget) by carefully selecting my planes, hotels, meetings with high impact/low registration, etc. Why am I so careful? Because I need to stretch my limited budget to my research/educational needs. If go over budget, I contribute out of my own pocket because meeting attendance is valuable to me. That alone tells me that we shouldn't be doing anything to constrain meeting attendance--within reason. In this case, reason is dictated by the budget amount I have to spend.

September 24, 2012

Sorry -- my earlier post was erroneous due to my own misunderstanding. Sorry.

September 24, 2012

One of the important functions of a Federal granting agency staff member at a scientific conference is to provide information about the agency to the scientists at the meeting. This is especially important in the case of young investigators who are in the early stages of their independent research careers. Information is disseminated about grant opportunities, agency missions and specific interests, grantsmanship, the review and funding process, etc. Since different federal agencies have different missions, different goals and different subject area interests, and sometimes even different review criteria and processes, this kind of information is important for lots of reasons -- not the least of which is helping young scientists avoid the tragedy of wasting their precious time preparing proposals or applications that do not match the interests (or format requirements) of the agency to which they are submitting the applications. The opportunity for one-on-one dialogue between would-be funded investigators and the staff members who really know what the agency is looking for is truly invaluable (especially since such young scientists often receive well-intentions but misinformed, misguided or erroneous advice from mentors or other senior scientists). There is also the equally invaluable opportunity for interpretive feedback regarding decisions and reviews pertaining to recent applications.

Another important function of agency staff is to be up-to-date in their "field of expertise." Getting the latest info (often as-yet-unpublished) re not only the scientific research itself but also re who's doing what (and in what part of the world -- there's lots of science being done globally and we need to know about that!) and how it's being received by the scientific community is critical to the function of staff (which in turn is critical to the function of the agency -- a Federal agency is only as good as its staff) -- it's a quality of service issue which is vitally important.

Avatar of: blub blubber

blub blubber

Posts: 4

September 25, 2012

Hey, we are scientists! I.e. we have ideas how to do things with whatever we get. What about a tent village near some cheap town in the midwest (i.e. car instead of plane) with fast internet? Everybody brings their own air bed/tent, yoga mat. Local help putting up some big tents, the town hall for the big talks, some beds in town for the squeamish or elderly, videoconferencing for the even squeamisher... Arrange for car pools formed from people form different labs, discussions round a fire, science talking without powerpoint slides. I'm sure at least the grad student and young post-doc crowd would be thrilled (and motivated). On some big conferences, that would save millions and we would be immersed with the locals (who would have at least see a scientist once in a while). Science-Woodstock? Ok, I am overshooting but hey, it's about ideas, ultimately, isn't it?

Avatar of: jhnycmltly

jhnycmltly

Posts: 65

September 25, 2012

A Canadian researcher was questioned about WHY the latest calcium channel blocker conference was held during a cruise of the Nile , he responded , "I've never been on a cruise of the Nile".

Avatar of: blub blubber

blub blubber

Posts: 4

September 26, 2012

They might have gotten a very good deal? Egyptian tourism is on its knees, it's close to Europe (they have Science there, too, you wouldn't believe...), flights are cheap and many and security on a cruise ship is near perfect. Renting a Marriot in D.C. for a few hundred people might have been just as expensive and certainly more expensive for the Europeans. And he certainly wasn't "questioned" (by a Canadian authority), you or one of your buddies asked him and that's what he said.

Avatar of: jhnycmltly

jhnycmltly

Posts: 65

September 26, 2012

He was questioned by one of our Canadian reporters , for a television documentary , in regards to what seemed to be 'buying' of doctors to defend the use of calcium channel blockers. It wasn't really into the frivolous spending , so your impulse reply , "your buddies" , trying to slander my name , is kind of misplaced in this case , and so I will accept your apology , and we will attempt to carry on like sane men. But I have taken notice of blub blubber blubbering.

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