Hearing discusses impacts of travel restrictions on federal scientists

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Publication date: 
15 March 2013


Concerns about the impacts that travel restrictions are having on federal scientists were discussed at a February 27 hearing of the House Subcommittee on the Federal Workforce, US Postal Service, and the Census.  While immediate changes are unlikely, a senior Office of Management and Budget (OMB) official acknowledged “a growing appreciation for . . . how critical to the advancement of science collaboration is.”

The first witness at this one hour hearing was Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ).  “As a scientist, I know firsthand how important scientific conferences and meetings are. The informal conversations, as well as the formal presentations and poster sessions that go into a conference among scientists from different institutions, lead to new collaborations that have the promise of new discoveries. These are not fancy junkets,” he told the subcommittee.  Holt referred to a newspaper op-ed by the former and current presidents of the American Physical Society (a Member Society of the American Institute of Physics) and the American Chemical Society about the impacts of travel restrictions on scientific discovery and the development of new technologies.  Later Holt said:

The Division of Plasma Physics of the American Physical Society (APS) meets each year with hundreds of engineers and scientists from around the country on Department of Energy contract as well as hundreds who are not on DOE contracts. I know firsthand the meetings are invaluable in developing future energy sources. Countless other societies, laboratories, and universities would be impacted by the effects of these proposed changes.

Holt concluded his remarks:

I am hopeful that this oversight legislation and administrative guidance would be modified to allow further scientific progress, instead of obstructing the sharing of ideas and information by eliminating travel and conference funding.

Weakening collaboration is not wise. This is not the way to build our economy. We should be investing more in research and development, which means, of course, investing in scientists, but also investing in their ability to pursue science.

We should be spending more on the conferences like those which promote innovation in microbiology, physics, chemistry, and a myriad of other scientific subject areas. These instances are not wasteful spending, but instead are examples of federal investments in innovation and economic development.

The administrative guidance Holt referred to was a May 2012 OMB memorandum that responded to well-publicized reports about excessive spending at a General Services Administration conference last year.  This memorandum requires all federal agencies to reduce travel costs by 30 percent as compared to 2010 expenses, for fiscal years 2013 through 2016.  Well-defined monetary limits are placed on expenditures for federal employees to attend a conference.  Legislation was passed by the House in the last Congress that would have codified and in some instances made these restrictions more stringent.  That legislation was reintroduced this year as H.R. 313.

This subcommittee is chaired by Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-TX).  Farenthold and other members did not ask Holt any questions.

Also testifying were Daniel Werfel, Controller of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and Cynthia Metzler, Chief Administrative Services Officer of the General Services Administration (GSA).  Metzler’s testimony centered on new controls and oversight procedures within the GSA and tools that the agency has developed to reduce travel and conference expenses across the government. 

Werfel’s written testimony summarized efforts to reduce travel and conference expenses, resulting in a savings in FY 2012 of approximately $2 billion as compared to FY 2010.  After discussing the “elimination, reduction, or consolidation of hundreds of conferences government-wide,” he stated “we are also aware of the important role travel and conferences can play in carrying out an agency’s mission.”  One example was “a meeting or symposium where scientific experts from the Federal government partner with their private-sector counterparts on critical research regarding life-threatening diseases.”  Werfel continued, “I think we all can agree that such activities are neither unnecessary nor wasteful.  While we must continue to be vigilant about reducing unnecessary travel or conference spending, we must also be vigilant in protecting activities that are necessary and vital to our shared priorities as a Nation.” 

Toward the hearing’s conclusion the discussion turned to scientific conferences.  Farenthold asked Werfel if he had heard of any adverse effects of the OMB restrictions.  Werfel replied, “I’m hearing mixed,” and then went on to say, “the biggest area that I face, criticism and concern, is coming from the scientific community as Rep. Holt mentioned. I think it is very legitimate.  These are very tough questions of public policy.  What I have learned through this process, and what I have a growing appreciation for, is how critical to the advancement of science collaboration is.  When there is a scientific advancement or setback, the whole engine of science runs by co-locating and collaborating around it.”

Farenthold responded, “I appreciate that. Some of the best inventions and breakthroughs have been as a result of accidents. You learn that in elementary school science.”

Responding to another question about what might be done legislatively, Werfel replied, “we want to be very protective of taxpayer resources and make good decisions but at the same time an across-the-board cut of 30% or whatever it is needs to have a very well thought out exception clause. And we need a good structure in place to make sure that we are filtering through that exception clause things that should move forward as they were intended. . . . That’s a collaborative effort among professionals, both science, financial management, and maybe GAO [General Accounting Office] could be helpful and involved in that as well.”    

At the conclusion of the hearing, Ranking Member Stephen Lynch (D-MA) spoke of misgivings he had heard from the scientific community about the OMB regulations and the House bills, and the affect these restrictions are having on international AIDS conferences.  Lynch asked Werfel if these restrictions were hurting the efficacy and the value of such conferences  by attendance caps.  Replied Werfel, “Yes, I think so,” both in limiting the number of federal employees who should be in attendance, as well as in effective financial management procedures.