The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How the federal travel crackdown hits scientists especially hard

Aaron Auerbach, a hematopathologist, looks at a human tissue sample on a light microscope at the Joint Pathology Center in Silver Spring, MD on April 5, 2012. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)
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The White House was so concerned last year that a crackdown on federal travel and training was undermining the standing of U.S. scientists that it ordered a survey of scientist-heavy agencies across government to see how bad things were.

The empirically based research results were dispiriting.

The travel restrictions, ordered by the Office of Management and Budget in 2012 in response to the uproar over a Las Vegas conference where hundreds of federal workers partied for four days at taxpayer expense, have hurt research while spawning new spending, a survey by the National Science and Technology Council found. 

Some agencies, for example, have hired up to six full-time employees just to process scientists’ requests to attend or present their research at conferences, according to survey results the Council provided to the Post.

[What happened with the GSA in Vegas stymies federal workers]

Several agencies reported that they modified or built from scratch a “conference request and tracking approval tool” to handle the voluminous paperwork and levels of staff review that are now required when a scientist puts in a conference or travel request. The one-time costs of these tools range from $72,000 to $900,000. The tracking systems carry annual operating costs, too: One agency reported that it now spends $248,000 a year on its system.

The Government Accountability Office reported similar costs this month in an audit of how scientists at the Defense and Energy departments have coped with the restrictions, which require agencies across government to pare spending on travel, training and conferences by 30 percent.

[The federal government is spending money trying not to spend money on travel]

Employees at a wide range of agencies that do not focus on research have complained that the rules are gumming up the machinery of government.

But the Science and Technology Council’s April 2014 survey found that scientist have been hit particularly hard, because they rely on presenting research to their peers for professional advancement and recognition.

The Council gathered data from large agencies with budgets greater than $12 billion or more than 20,000 science and technology workers. Agencies were asked how long conference requests took to approve and the cost of implementing the policy, from staff time to new computer systems.

The Council declined to identify the agencies, but said the survey found significant negative effects on their ability to conduct and present research, nurture young scientists as well as “cost burdens associated with implementing the [travel] policy.”

The bad news had a silver lining. It prompted the White House to soften the restrictions a bit in January. OMB issued new instructions giving all federal agencies more flexibility for employees to travel and attend conferences. The changes include easing spending caps on some “mission critical” travel, allowing employees to seek pre-approval for a list of conferences, rather than before each one and encouraging agencies to delegate a less-senior official to sign-off on some conferences.