Most scientists who work for the government love doing so. They develop connections with others who share their dedication to public service, and see the immediate impact of their work reflected in real-world policies that protect public health and safety or the environment. But sometimes, politics gets in the way of their full participation in the scientific enterprise, wasting taxpayer dollars invested in the researchers themselves and jeopardizing the ability of the government to attract top scientific talent.
On Tuesday, a Senate committee will examine conference and travel spending across the federal government. Previous scandals involving government employee travel—notably the General Services Administration’s questionable conference spending in Las Vegas—led Congress to significantly restrict travel across the board, with some unintended, yet significant, consequences for science.
“Deep cuts in already paltry federal travel budgets mean federal scientists are not presenting their research findings,” wrote Meg Urry, director of the Yale Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics. “There is less communication between program officers and the scientists who carry out [National] Science Foundation and NASA missions. Important work funded by taxpayer dollars is not being disseminated, reducing return on investment. There are fewer conversations in which NSF and NASA officials learn about astronomers’ latest results and talk about agency plans.”
In May 2013, 64 science and engineering associations (64!) asked Congress to change existing travel rules so that scientists may participate in technical conferences. Current restrictions, they wrote, are “having the unintentional consequence of restricting the open exchange of ideas among scientists, engineers, and technologists, and thereby adversely affecting important national interests by throttling back on the U.S. ‘innovation engine.’” They continued:
“The formal presentation of peer-reviewed research, the casual conversations that occur while attending meetings, and the ability to expand one’s horizons and examine problems in a new light result in unanticipated and important connections being forged, not only in technical arenas, but also in policy and program areas. It is precisely this kind of unanticipated stimulation that led to the commercial use of GPS satellites for telecommunications, automotive and maritime location assistance, and a myriad of other commercial applications of a technology originally developed for military purposes.”
Even when travel is approved, it is often done so just days before a conference or meeting is scheduled to take place—making it difficult for research societies to effectively plan meetings and impossible for many scientists to present their research at these meetings. There are cultural slights, too. One NASA researcher told me recently that colleagues from another country were deeply offended when the agency turned down a request from the country’s government research agency to present at an important scientific meeting it was hosting.
In the long run, we all worry that scientists will leave government for jobs that seem to appreciate them more. “Outstanding students in engineering and science have normally considered a career in our national laboratories as desirable,” wrote Richard Miles, professor emeritus of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Princeton University. “Students now completing their degrees will be much less inclined to join organizations that do not permit them to participate effectively in the scientific community. Travel restrictions have also created a terrible mood among scientists and engineers working in those laboratories. Many of them are already seeking work elsewhere.”
The work of scientists in many fields has become collateral damage of the government’s new travel restrictions. Oversight is important, and wasteful spending is deplorable. But it is possible to make cuts with a scalpel and not an axe. The Senate should consider how to alleviate the unnecessary consequences these restrictions have on the ability of government scientists to do their jobs.
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