A May 11, 2012 memo issued by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) instructed federal agencies to spend at least 30 percent less on travel in FY 2013 than in FY 2010. These reductions must be maintained, according to the memo, through FY 2016. The memo requests that agencies describe their plans to reach these proposed reductions and further states that “Federal agencies and employees must exercise discretion and judgment in ensuring that conference expenses are appropriate, necessary, and managed in a manner that minimizes expenses to taxpayers.” Agencies will, according to this memo, be required to report conference expenses in excess of $100,000 and would prohibit expenses that were in excess of $500,000 for a single conference unless the agency head provides a written waiver from this policy.
Professional societies have expressed concern these restrictions could have significant negative consequences for the science community because it would undermine the ability for government scientists to participate in conferences and scientific meetings. Most agencies have issued their travel policies as instructed to do so by the OMB guidelines. Science societies and other groups have authored letters on this issue to highlight the negative effect this would have on the research community. Several AIP Member Societies including the American Astronomical Society, American Geophysical Union, and the Optical Society signed onto a letter written by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The Presidents of the American Physical Society and the American Chemical Society jointly authored an op-ed stating:
“Science and technology are key drivers for American innovation, and to work optimally they require unhampered collaboration and communication among multiple institutions and laboratories. If scientists can’t collaborate, their research, which drives economic growth, would be severely constrained. And if they can’t communicate, project costs would rise, and taxpayers’ dollars would be wasted. The OMB rules, and pending Hill legislation, pose significant risks for American innovation.”
Legislation relating to this issue has passed through the House or Representatives as well as the Senate. HR 2146 and S 1789 require that an agency post a report on each conference for which that agency paid travel expenses. Such reporting requirements would direct the agency to disclose information including the cost benefit of the conference over teleconference options, how the conference advanced the agency’s mission, a justification of the conference location, the title of the employees who were reimbursed for the conference as well as the total number of individuals who were reimbursed. Portions of this bill could lead to an even greater level of scrutiny and paperwork for scientists wishing to attend conferences. Congress could discuss this bill in the final weeks of this session.
Other legislation on this issue includes HR 4631, the Government Spending Accountability Act which defines a conference as an event that an employee travels 25 or more miles to attend and is held for consultation, education, discussion or training. HR 4454, the Agency Conferences and Conventions Operating Under Necessary Transparency Act of 2012 requires for agencies to approve any conference costing more than $25,000 and validate that the conference is necessary for the agency’s core mission. Neither of these bills is likely to see more floor action this Congress.