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House Committee Supports Lifting Travel Restrictions for Government Scientists

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I’ve written before about how burdensome and unnecessary travel restrictions prevent federal government scientists from participating in scientific meetings and collaborating with their peers. So I was delighted to see the following text in the accompanying report to the Defense Department authorizing bill that passed unanimously out of the House Armed Services Committee on May 7, which is worth quoting at some length (my emphasis added):

Conference restrictions for scientists and engineers
The committee is aware that one of the areas where the Department of Defense has been trying to reduce its costs has been in conference travel. With recent advances in collaboration tools, video teleconferencing, and telepresence, such travel can be reasonably scaled back in some areas with little negative impact on the workforce.

However, the committee is concerned that blanket restrictions on conference travel are having an acute negative impact on the science and engineering workforce. The committee recognizes that such conferences are not just professional enrichment for this sector of the workforce, but are vital and mission essential tools of the trade. For example, scientists and engineers use national and international sponsors of professional scientific societies to peer review their work, get exposed to the most recent advances in the international academic community, and better understand the technological advances of allies and adversaries alike. In addition, for many scientists and engineers, participation in these professional societies is essential for professional development in order to attain fellowships and recognition within their respective fields of endeavor. The committee is aware of anecdotal examples of these travel restrictions, coupled with furloughs and pay freezes, contributing to some members of the workforce leaving public service.

When researchers meet face to face, exciting things happen. Last year, 64 scientific societies wrote that government travel restrictions were "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.’” The Department of Defense and the House Armed Services Committee are taking steps to fix this problem. Photo: NASA

When researchers meet face to face, exciting things happen. Last year, 64 scientific societies wrote that government travel restrictions were “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.’” The Department of Defense and the House Armed Services Committee are taking steps to fix this problem. Photo: NASA

The committee applauds the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics for recognizing the problem and issuing a memo on February 14, 2014, to clarify the guidance for technical and industry conferences. The committee urges the Under Secretary to continue to highlight this issue within the Department and to find appropriate mechanisms for tracking compliance with this guidance, and find additional means to support travel for the science and engineering workforce to attend technical conferences.

The memorandum referenced in the committee report reads in part as follows:

 The Department is the single largest employer of scientists and engineers in the United States. Maintaining professional currency is an important part of this investment in human capital. Science and technology (S&T) conferences and symposia, at which technical data and information is exchanged, are potentially beneficial both for maintaining technical competence and for the professional development of DoD scientists and engineers.

The Defense Department recognizes that employees who are full participants in the scientific community will be better able to deliver cutting-edge scientific analysis and advice, and will be more likely to stay in an organization that values their professional development. It’s heartening to know that the House Armed Services Committee understands this, too, and that support for government scientists can come from both sides of the aisle. Let’s hope that additional agencies and congressional committees will show similar enthusiasm for the work of other government scientists.

Posted in: Science and Democracy, Scientific Integrity Tags: , , , ,

About the author: Michael Halpern is an expert on political interference in science and solutions to reduce suppression, manipulation, and distortion of government science. See Michael's full bio.

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