New York Times
POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Oct 23, 2012
After General Services Administration workers were found splurging on hotels, food and catering for a regional conference near Las Vegas two years ago, the Obama administration imposed new guidelines that limit the amount of money that federal agencies can spend on such events. The Office of Management and Budget estimates that the directive saved more than $600 million in the first two quarters of this fiscal year, compared with the same period in 2010.
But a number of science and technology organizations are now arguing that the federal belt-tightening is affecting the ability of the scientific community to share research and collaborate.
The U.S. Public Policy Council of ACM, the Computing Research Association, the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers have written to Congress and federal officials, asking for an exemption from the spending policy for “recognized scientific, technical and educational meetings” and “meetings of national and international standards bodies.”
“Participation in scientific conferences is a critical opportunity for scientists and engineers to keep current in rapidly changing fields of science and technology,” said the letter, dated Sept. 10 and sent to House and Senate leaders of both parties, as well as the federal Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Science and Technology Policy. “These conferences facilitate communication among scientists, engineers, practitioners and students. They provide an important venue for presenting cutting-edge research.”
Representatives from agencies like the Energy Department, NASA, the National Science Foundation and the Defense Department regularly attend conferences to exchange findings with private organizations. Participation in the events usually includes setting up booths where the federal researchers can demonstrate new technologies. Officials said the meetings emphasize collaboration, as well as education.
Last year, for instance, 564 people from the Energy Department attended the 2011 Supercomputing Conference to meet with private groups, speak and present new research. The department’s 12 laboratories — including Fermilab in Illinois, Brookhaven on Long Island, Los Alamos in New Mexico and Oak Ridge in Tennessee — set up booths to exhibit their latest projects, allowing them to demonstrate their work in a hands-on setting that is vital to the scientific process, critics of the spending policy say.
But next month, when 11,000 hardware and software developers and vendors gather in Salt Lake City for the 2012 Supercomputing Conference, or SC12, none of the Energy Department’s labs will have their own booths on the 125,000-square-foot exhibit floor, and there will be 172 fewer agency employees, organizers estimate, than in 2011.
The Energy Department is still sending nearly 400 employees to participate in the technical program, where scientists can discuss and present their research. But Vinton G. Cerf, president of the Association for Computing Machinery who has been described as one of the “fathers of the Internet,” said that is not enough.
“This is a problem not just for the computing research community, but for almost anyone who’s involved in scientific work,” Cerf said. “The inability of the government researchers and program managers to participate in these conferences is actually very damaging.”
Cerf said he understood the government’s interest in cutting costs, but thought the policy was “a terrible penny-wise decision.”
“This is not a boondoggle,” he said. “This is hard work.”The government has also had a large presence at SIGGRAPH, an annual international computer graphics and interactives conference, as well as smaller events that might feel the agencies’ reduced presence even more keenly, Cerf said.
In October 2010, the General Services Administration spent $822,751 to prepare for and hold its Western region annual meeting. A review by the agency’s inspector general concluded the spending was “excessive, wasteful and in some cases impermissible.”
Obama administration officials issued a directive in September 2011 for a review of all conference attendance by all agencies to promote “efficient spending.” In May, Jeffrey D. Zients, acting director of the budget office, issued a memo calling for all agencies to decrease travel spending by 30 percent starting in the new federal fiscal year. It capped spending at a single conference at $100,000 for each agency, and said agencies could spend more than $500,000 on conferences only after review.
At SC12, a research booth costs $1,200 to $32,000, depending on size; individual registration ranges from $100 to $750, depending on an attendee’s status (member, nonmember, student) and the date of registration. Agencies also pay for travel and accommodation for employees.
Moira Mack, a spokeswoman for the Office of Management and Budget, said the conference policy was meant to save taxpayers money. Officials estimated that the new rules would save nearly $1.2 billion in fiscal 2013.
“As part of the president’s Campaign to Cut Waste, we are aggressively managing travel and conference spending to ensure we are serving America’s families as efficiently as possible without sacrificing vital missions,” Mack said in a statement. “At the same time as we root out the waste of taxpayer dollars, the Obama administration is continuing to deliver the critical services the American people depend on, including advancing research and maintaining our leadership in science and innovation.”
She said the agency had not received the letter from the scientific groups. The Energy Department referred questions to Mack.
Besides limiting spending, the new policy has created confusion in federal agencies, critics say, because individuals do not know how many other agency employees are also attending, and have no idea whether the agency is close to its $100,000 spending limit.
Though the federal laboratories are not hosting booths on the SC12 exhibit floor, most are still expected to send representatives who will make technical presentations, said Ian MacConnell, a communications coordinator for SC12. Still, he said, the absence of Energy Department booths will reduce the opportunities to share information.
“So there will be a lot of ‘aha’ moments I think that are lost because they’re not able to demonstrate their technologies,” he said.
Thomas Schlagel, chief information officer at the Brookhaven lab on Long Island, said the conference would still provide a valuable experience. “From year to year budgets come and go, and you do the best you can with the budget you’re given,” he said.
But Cerf said in an era of high unemployment and shifting markets, scientific collaboration was crucial, and limiting it with these kinds of policies “can’t be good for the United States.”