Fighting Back Against the Conference Spending Crackdown

Scientific group says new restrictions threaten the quality of research at federal labs.

Three and a half years after the General Services Administration extravagant conference scandal broke, scientists are warning that the crackdown on travel to confabs imposed by Congress and the Obama administration has gone too far.

“The restrictions on conference participation threaten the quality of research at our federal labs, the stature of U.S. science on the global stage and agencies’ abilities to recruit and retain the best and brightest,” wrote Sandra H. Magnus, executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, in a Monday Washington Post op-ed.

She cited a March Government Accountability Office report showing that would-be Energy and Defense department federal participants in conferences often have to wait months to receive approval to participate in the events, sometimes getting permission just days in advance. This prevents many scientists and engineers from taking speaking roles. “Delayed approvals also lead to last-minute bookings and increased travel costs, all borne by taxpayers,” Magnus wrote, adding examples of scientific careers that were altered by participation in a key conference.

To ease the problem, her aeronautics institute has joined with more than 100 scientific and engineering organizations to meet with lawmakers and the White House to press for an immediate relaxation of agency travel restrictions.

Surveys have shown that many federal employees do not feel that the less-expensive option of video-conferencing is a satisfactory alternative to in-person interaction.

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