The unexpected, 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. (Oct. 6-11). The meeting brings together weather forecasters and researchers from the public and private sector, and historically has been heavily represented by NWS and television meteorologists.

The NWS dropouts slashed meeting attendance almost 20 percent, from an expected total of 500 to around 400 to 425, said Steve Harned, NWA executive director. Presentation abstract deadlines for the meeting were in May and June, meaning many attendees had planned for months to attend the conference.

Nevertheless, with the meeting set to begin Saturday, NOAA officials were forced to cut NWS travel funding to the meeting by 65 percent Friday morning when the Department of Commerce (DOC) — the parent agency of NWS and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — had not approved the travel request in time.

Neither NWS nor DOC have said why the travel wasn’t authorized or authorized on time.

Last year 130 NWS staff attended the conference according to NWA. This year 30 staff attended, NWS said.

Government conference spending has been under increased scrutiny in the wake of an investigation of an “opulent” $823,000 training conference held in Las Vegas in October 2010 by the General Services Administration that resulted in high-level resignations.

The initial NWS travel request for the NWA meeting was more than $200,000. Under DOC regulations established in June, “group travel” exceeding $75,000 must be approved by the DOC Deputy Undersecretary for Operations (DUS-O) and the Department. But an internal e-mail sent out Friday at 10:38 a.m. shows NWS had received no such approval. That left it with no choice but to cut travel allotted to the NWA meeting to $75,000 or less.

“Due to the uncertainty of DOC approval, the [NOAA Deputy Assistant Administrator] requests that we quickly trim the attendee list down to equal the maximum approval amount possible by the DUS-O office, 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 National Weather Service Employees Union (NWSEO), sharply criticized the administrative breakdown or willful lack of action on DOC’s part:

“[DOC’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 NWS 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 said not only was meeting travel cut 65 percent, but that NWS management failed to use a significant part of the 35 percent of the funding that was authorized.

“To our knowledge, the NWS 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 NWS 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.”

NWS said staff from both the southern and central region were sent to Madison.

Because of all the absentees, meeting staff scrambled to fill slots and arrange remote video teleconferencing capability. NWS 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 Go to Meeting to allow NWS speakers to give their talks,” said Bruce Thomas, NWA 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.”

Steve Harned, NWA executive director, called empty seats at the meeting “certainly disappointing.”

The reduced number of attendees may have a negative financial impact on the NWA — a nonprofit organization — due to unfulfilled registration fees.

“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 NWS did not apologize for pulling staff out of the conference. It acknowledged the importance of professional development for staff and affirmed its commitment to community engagement, but also stressed its own fiscal responsibilities.

“The exchange of knowledge is vital to the continued professional development of our weather professionals and to the entire weather enterprise,” it said. “That fact, and our fundamental duty to make judicious use of taxpayer monies, inform decisions about NOAA participation in or our support for conferences.”

UPDATE, 7 p.m.: In an official statement, the DOC reiterated the importance of the achieved taxpayer cost savings:

“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.”

Disclaimer: The author is a member of the NWA.