An Update on Actions Affecting Spending for Science Conferences

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Publication date: 
19 November 2012
Number: 
138

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.

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