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Posted at 10:44 AM ET, 10/18/2012

NOAA participation in climate conference in limbo due to lack of travel approval

3:56 p.m. update: National Weather Service spokesman Chris Vaccaro said that the group travel request was approved this afternoon. NOAA employees that planned to travel to the conference will be able to attend.

From 10:44 a.m.: NOAA’s 37th Climate Diagnostics and Prediction (CDP) workshop - supposed to begin next Monday - may be disrupted as NOAA officials have yet to authorize travel to the meeting.

This latest travel drama comes less than two weeks after some 80 NOAA National Weather Service (NWS) employees were told, after months of planning, they could not travel to the National Weather Association (NWA) meeting in Madison, Wi. less than 2 days before it was set to start.

The travel funding request for the NWA meeting exceeded $75,000, meaning it required approval from the Department of Commerce, NOAA’s parent agency. The request for the next week’s CDP workshop is beneath that threshold, meaning approval is only required within NOAA.

A constrained budget environment is the main reason for the difficulties in obtaining group travel approval at the Department of Commerce and/or NOAA levels officials have said.

The annual CDP workshop, scheduled to be held in Ft. Collins, Colorado October 22-25, brings together scientists from NOAA and the university research community to discuss methods for improving seasonal forecasts for phenomena like El Nino.

This year’s meeting - with an expected total attendance of about 120 participants - is hosted by Colorado State University with the American Meteorological Society serving as a cooperating sponsor.

About 24 NOAA employees - mostly from the NWS - are planning to travel to the CDP workshop, but an email sent from management to staff Wednesday said the group travel request has not been approved. If the request is not approved, fewer than 10 employees across NOAA will be able to travel.

“Right now we’re in a situation where managers are asking people to volunteer to not go in order to get our numbers under the group travel approval,” said a NOAA employee hoping to attend the conference, who wished to remain anonymous. “Real morale killer around here to be witnessing this.”

Chris Vaccaro, a spokesman for the National Weather Service, did not have a status update on the travel request as of Thursday morning.

“The NWS continues to examine travel and participation in conferences and meetings to ensure funds are used properly and legally,” Vaccaro said. “While taxpayer funds support the necessary training and collaborative interactions at conferences and workshops, these funds will be used judiciously.”

The recent difficulties in getting group travel requests approved within NOAA raises questions about staff participation at future meetings, including the American Meteorological Society annual meeting to be held in Austin, Texas in January.

“NWS and all of NOAA are unique in many aspects in that they combine science and saving lives,” said Dan Sobien, president of the NWS employees union. “To effectively to do its mission, employees need to be up to date on latest science [by attending conferences]”.

He added: “As an analogy, if you had to go into open heart surgery, would you want a doctor who had not been allowed to attend the latest medical conference on the techniques?”

Steve Tracton contributed to this report

By  |  10:44 AM ET, 10/18/2012

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