Bags were packed, flight and hotel arrangements finalized and presentations polished. But a day before one of the nation’s biggest annual weather conferences, about 80 National Weather Service employees were told that they could not travel.
The last-minute drop in attendance has left a gaping hole in the agenda for the National Weather Association (NWA) annual meeting, being held this week in Madison, Wis. The meeting brings together weather forecasters and researchers from the public and private sectors and, historically, has been heavily represented by Weather Service and television meteorologists.
The cancellations slashed meeting attendance by almost 20 percent from the expected total of about 500, said Steve Harned, the NWA executive director.
The meeting started Saturday, but the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration cut Weather Service travel funding to the gathering by 65 percent Friday morning because the Department of Commerce — the parent agency of the Weather Service and NOAA — had not approved the travel request in time.
Last year, 130 Weather Service staff members attended the conference, according to the NWA. This year 30 attended, the Weather Service said.
In a statement Tuesday, the Commerce Department said, “In this constrained budget environment, all bureaus within the Department of Commerce, including NOAA, have cut back on travel expenditures. The Department of Commerce, in addition to NOAA, is committed to being a good steward of taxpayer dollars, including when it comes to participating in conferences which further Commerce’s mission to support American businesses, create jobs, strengthen the economy, and advance scientific innovation.”
Government conference spending has been under increased scrutiny after an investigation of an $823,000 training conference held in Las Vegas in October 2010 by the General Services Administration. That agency’s inspector general criticized the spending in a report that resulted in high-level resignations.
The initial Weather Service travel request for the NWA gathering was more than $200,000. Under Commerce regulations established in June, “group travel” exceeding $75,000 requires the approval of the department’s deputy undersecretary for operations and the department. But an internal e-mail sent at 10:38 a.m. Friday shows that the Weather Service had received no such approval. It had to cut travel funding to the meeting to $75,000 or less.
“Due to the uncertainty of [Commerce Department] approval, the [NOAA deputy assistant administrator] requests that we quickly trim the attendee list down to equal the maximum approval amount possible . . . which would be $75,000, as a contingency plan,” the e-mail said. “This means we are cutting our estimate [budget for travel] by 65%.”
Daniel Sobien, president of the National Weather Service Employees Organization (NWSEO), criticized the last-minute cuts.
Commerce’s “failure to approve it or failure to approve it in a timely manner demonstrates a fundamental lack of knowledge of the importance of the NWA and this meeting and [its] direct impact on the ability of [Weather Service] forecasters to share with each other and the meteorological community scientific improvements in forecast and warnings, on which 300 million Americans depend daily,” Sobien said in a statement.
NWSEO also said Weather Service management failed to use a significant part of the 35 percent of the funding that was authorized. “To our knowledge, the [Weather Service’s] southern region is the only continental U.S. region that is sending any forecasters to this meeting (about 15 we are told),” Sobien said. “The . . . eastern, western and central regions could have sent a contingent as well under the reduced funding levels, but we understand have decided not to do so.”
Weather Service spokesman Christopher Vaccaro said the agency sent employees from the southern and central regions.
The conference staff scrambled to fill slots and arrange video teleconferencing. Weather Service employees were scheduled to give more than 100 oral and poster presentations, according to a Sept. 25 version of the meeting agenda.
“We had a good first day and used [video conferencing] to allow [Weather Service] speakers to give their talks,” said Bruce Thomas, the NWA’s president. “We are dealing with this in good spirit.”
A message on the meeting blog reads: “We understand and sympathize with presenters who are unable to attend in person for circumstances not within their control.”
Harned, of the NWA, called the empty seats at the meeting “certainly disappointing.”
“Of course, the registration fees we won’t be collecting is concerning, but we will have to wait for a couple of weeks to see what our total revenue stream will be from the attendees who are here, exhibitor and sponsor income, and some reduced expenses we were able to enact at the last minute,” Harned said.
In an official statement, the Weather Service acknowledged the importance of professional development for staff and affirmed its commitment to community engagement, but it also stressed its fiscal responsibilities.
“The exchange of knowledge is vital to the continued professional development of our weather professionals and to the entire weather enterprise,” the Weather Service said. “That fact, and our fundamental duty to make judicious use of taxpayer monies, inform decisions about NOAA participation in or support for conferences.”
Jason Samenow is weather editor for The Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang blog and is a member of the NWA. Read more at washingtonpost.com/blogs/capital-weather-gang.