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The Road Less And Less Traveled

Policy meant to rein in federal spending may increase costs, stifle scientific progress, critics say

by William G. Schulz
March 25, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 12

Credit: Linda Wang/C&EN
Scientific societies are leading the charge to ensure OMB policy doesn’t hinder scientists’ ability to attend meetings.
Photo of an ACS poster session; government scientists would like to amend travel restrictions issued year by the White House along with more restrictions now being considered by Congress.
Credit: Linda Wang/C&EN
Scientific societies are leading the charge to ensure OMB policy doesn’t hinder scientists’ ability to attend meetings.

A policy to restrict travel by federal employees put in place last year by the White House Office of Management & Budget has been unpopular with the science community from the start, but critics are now saying it is costing the government more money, instead of saving it.

The policy requires agencies to cut 30% of their travel spending from 2010 budget numbers. What’s more, the directive says agency travel spending on any one scientific meeting that exceeds $100,000 must be approved at the deputy secretary level. And for meetings exceeding $500,000 in costs, agency directors must weigh in to deny or provide waivers for these expenses.

OMB officials say the directive has already achieved tremendous savings. They claim $2 billion less in overall government travel spending in fiscal year 2012 compared with FY 2010. “These reductions have been the result of reducing overall travel, and also ensuring that required travel is completed in a cost-effective manner,” OMB says.

But a new analysis coordinated by government contractor Battelle Memorial Institute finds a cost increase for the Department of Energy’s national laboratories. According to the analysis, compliance with OMB travel restrictions has touched off skyrocketing administrative costs. Battelle officials tell C&EN that those costs for the national labs have risen sevenfold, from some $2 million per year to nearly $14 million per year and counting. So the benefits of the policy, at least in terms of cost, remain unclear.

The Battelle and OMB reports on policy costs are just one part of a so-far genteel exchange between the Administration and the scientific community over the importance of meetings travel for government scientists. In fact, the scientists—largely through the efforts of several scientific societies including the American Chemical Society, which publishes C&EN—have embarked on something of an education campaign for government officials about the centrality of professional meetings to scientific progress and the negative fallout they see from the OMB directive.

ACS Director of Public Affairs Glenn S. Ruskin says OMB officials have stressed to the scientific community that their intent is not so much to restrict travel as it is to rationalize the process and ensure that taxpayer money is spent carefully. Still, he says, “scientific societies have discussed how they might get amendments to the OMB policy. Now might be an opportune time.”

To cope with the policy, federal scientists and their allies in various scientific societies have, for example, mapped out advance planning strategies to understand whether travel requests for various meetings and conferences will reach thresholds that require upper management reviews and approvals. The ultimate goal of these groups is to do away with or amend monetary caps on federal agency travel spending.

Although the Battelle cost estimates have not been published, they were compiled from actual data gathered by national laboratories’ chief financial officers, says Paul Doucette, director of congressional affairs for science and technology at Battelle, which is involved in the management of eight national laboratories, six for the Department of Energy. What’s more, Doucette says, the federal government will be getting the bill for these added burdens. “These are costs we can charge back to the government.”

Along with the Battelle data, anecdotal evidence from federal scientists and engineers is that the policy has created many unintended and negative results. Many say it has only increased bureaucracy, created frustration for those trying to attend professional meetings and conferences, and placed federal scientists behind the curve of new understanding in their disciplines. They worry about the ability of the government to attract top scientific talent if the perception is one of austerity for career growth and development by public servants.

“No one thinks the travel/conference situation is going smoothly, at least not in the DOE laboratory system,” says Nancy B. Jackson, who is a manager at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico and former ACS president. “How can scientists do their work without collaborating, brainstorming, hearing other views, and finding out how similar problems are solved? Many highly classified scientific areas have fallen behind the outside world’s capabilities because of this lack of interaction.”

The impetus for the OMB directive was likely a scandal in early 2012 involving employees of the General Services Administration who spent lavishly on themselves for a meeting in Las Vegas. Although many GSA employees were fired over that scandal, it was still politically damaging to the White House.

The concern over the federal travel budget is also shared by Congress. Legislation restricting government travel—nearly identical to the OMB directive—has been reintroduced in the House of Representatives. The Government Spending Accountability Act of 2013 (H.R. 313) is identical to a measure introduced last year, but that bill didn’t go anywhere.

To air the issues on travel restrictions for scientists, a subpanel of the House Committee on Oversight & Government Reform held a hearing on Feb. 27. There, GSA Chief Administrative Services Officer Cynthia Metzler assured lawmakers that “GSA has put in place strict internal travel and conference policies to reduce costs, provide strong oversight, and ensure that travel only occurs when necessary.”

But subcommittee members also heard from one of their own for input about travel restrictions on government scientists: Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.), a Ph.D physicist-cum-politician who extolled the “many benefits of appropriate travel, which can promote collaboration and innovation.”

“As a scientist, I know firsthand how important scientific conferences and meetings are,” Holt said. “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. The obstacles this bill creates would hinder that kind of collaboration.”

Although Ruskin and others maintain that the policy is a real obstacle for government scientists, budget sequestration may trump it. Under sequestration, the budgets of all federal agencies are being reduced. The reduction in available funds is resulting in agencies scaling back on travel.

The canary in the coal mine, Ruskin says, was an Air Force cost-cutting plan that surfaced last summer outlining potential budget reductions—many of them travel budget deletions—that would result if sequestration happened, which it did on March 1.

“The first place agencies go is a hiring freeze, a travel freeze—before you have to cut the headcount through furloughs or other measures,” says Ruskin.

Whether through sequestration or travel restrictions, “I don’t understand why Congress is so intent upon doing all they can to drag us down from the number one global position in science and engineering research,” Sandia’s Jackson says. “Maybe they think American exceptionalism prevents that from ever happening. Unfortunately, American exceptionalism cannot overcome a lack of support for science and collaboration among scientific peers. There are many great countries nipping at our heels.”


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