Citing negative impacts to American science, technology, and innovation, AAAS and 125 other scientific organizations have expressed "deep concerns" about recent U.S. government travel restrictions. These rules for federal employees and contractors have resulted in a "stark reduction" in the number of government scientists and engineers at scientific and technical conferences, AAAS and others wrote in a 21 April letter to policymakers.
"The formal and informal interactions that take place at scientific and technical conferences are a crucial part of the innovation process and help to maximize the return on taxpayer investment in scientific research."
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The Department of Defense's Army Research Laboratory, for example, has reported that conference participation by its employees dropped from 1,300 in 2011 to 100 in 2013, following the 2012 rollout of new Office of Management and Budget (OMB) guidelines. The OMB travel restrictions and related legislation, assessed in a March 2015 report by the Government Accountability Office, have also increased red tape and administrative burdens on the U.S. science and engineering enterprise, AAAS reported.
"The formal and informal interactions that take place at scientific and technical conferences are a crucial part of the innovation process and help to maximize the return on taxpayer investment in scientific research," the group wrote. "Whether providing rapid pathways for bringing scientific advances to bear on societal needs, spurring new collaborations that promote exciting interdisciplinary investigations, or simply providing cost-effective venues for scientific program management and oversight, scientific conferences are crucial to the efficient functioning of our innovation ecosystem and maximizing the return on federal investments in science."
Under current rules, the AAAS consortium reported, government scientists and engineers who want to participate in major scientific conferences such as the AAAS Annual Meeting "often wait many months to receive approval," which may be granted only a few days before the event. Last-minute travel arrangements then result in increased costs, AAAS said.
The OMB guidelines were issued in response to reports of wasteful government spending by federal employees at "junket-style" gatherings.
AAAS CEO Rush Holt emphasized, however, that scientific and technical conferences are professional working events — "not fancy junkets." Oversight of federal travel expenditures is critical, he has said, but excessive restrictions "hinder American scientists' ability to collaborate and communicate with scientists at other institutions and laboratories." At scientific conferences, informal networking, formal presentations, and poster sessions are all essential to scientific advancement, he added.
"Science and technology conferences provide undergraduate and graduate students with important opportunities to present their work in a professional setting," said Tiffany Lohwater, AAAS Director of Meetings and Public Engagement. "These events also allow federal researchers and program managers an opportunity to recruit prospective researchers and perform crucial program oversight."
AAAS and its collaborators urged policymakers to revise existing government travel restrictions, to ensure "transparency and accountability in federal spending without impacting scientific progress and innovation."