Defending Science Meetings

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

Sep 24, 2012
Beth Marie Mole

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