The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The defense secretary wants his scientists to travel. They’ve been grounded by bureaucracy.

Some of the scientists who went to the Solvay Conference in Belgium in 1911. Among those pictured are famous physicists Max Planck, Marie Curie, Albert Einstein, Ernest Rutherford, Paul Langevin and Walther Nernst. (SSPL/Getty Images)
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Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter issued an unusual missive last fall to the Pentagon’s top brass: Cut through the bureaucracy and make it easier for scientists and other government employees to travel to conferences so they can share their work.

It had been three years since the White House cracked down on federal travel across the government after hundreds of federal employees went on an embarrassing four-day junket to Las Vegas. Travel and conference spending was slashed by 30 percent. Layers and more layers of managers were tasked with reviewing conference requests. And many were denied.

For Carter, a physicist and former science professor himself, the restrictions had gone too far.

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

He wrote that the “…excessive restrictions on conference participation and attendance by DoD personnel have become counterproductive” and said the crackdown was “undermining the professional development for communities such as our science and technology, medical, and education personnel, and making it more difficult to come together with others to promote the free exchange of ideas that drive creativity and innovation.”

But eight months after issuing his appeal to the largest federal agency, the Army and Navy haven’t budged yet, officials said, and are staying on a common path in government when someone — even someone as high-ranking as the defense secretary –suggests changing the rules. They’re reviewing the guidance.

“While the review process…is ongoing, the Army is taking a holistic approach with input from Army stakeholders on how to best meet the SECDEF’s intent,” Army spokesman Dov Schwartz said in a statement.

[Federal travel: Spending is down as lawmakers consider more restrictions]

The Army plans to balance Carter’s call for less red tape “while balancing appropriate process controls to ensure proper review and oversight procedures are maintained over constrained resources,” Schwartz said.

Carter’s request apparently has gotten stuck in the same bureaucracy it was trying to jettison. And four years after the Las Vegas scandal prompted a hair-trigger waste-cutting response by the White House, scientists in pockets of the government say they are still bedeviled by conference restrictions they say are strangling their lifeblood of research and professional collaboration.

“What put this on the front page was not technical conferences,” Joseph Mait, chief scientist at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, said of the uproar over a training event held by the General Services Administration in 2010 that reverberated across agencies.

[GSA chief resigns amid reports of excessive spending ]

“We were tarred with the same brush,” said Mait, who has led a two-year campaign among federal scientists and their professional associations to clear the path for access to gatherings.

“Science is a social activity,” he said. “We just want to go back to the way things were.”

The effort has had some success. Some agencies, including the National Insitutes of Health and NASA, have loosened their rules in recent months to ease the way for scientists to resume presenting research to their peers for professional advancement and recognition. Approvers at NIH’s parent agency, the Department of Health and Human Services, no longer have to sign off on most conference requests, a process that had delayed approvals by months, scientists say.

The White House gave agencies more flexibility with conference guidelines last year, easing spending caps on some critical travel and allowing employees to seek pre-approval for a list of conferences, rather than before each one.

But not every agency has moved to relax things. “The reforms are patchy and they’re not consistent,” said Jennifer Douris of the international society for optics and photonics technology, with 18,000 members, many of them federal scientists.

Mait said conference attendance and travel is now limited to a quarter of his staff, about half the number that went before the new rules took effect. Now he has to justify every request for legal and budgetary review, explaining the benefit to the Army.

The Army is a recognized leader in rotorcraft technology for flight simulation. But few scientists can attend the annual meeting of experts in the discipline.

“The Army is imposing a limit, and the leader in rotocraft technology can’t present its work,” Mait said.

Leaders at the Army Research Lab, which provides scientific, technical and engineering support to the Army, were so concerned that scientists could not share their research with colleagues in their fields that last year they hired an outside consultant to confirm how bad things were. They were joined in their concern by the Air Force’s research arm and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which also funded the study.

The Government Accountability Office, in an audit last year on the crackdown’s effects on science, technology and engineering researchers at the Defense and Energy departments, recommended a formal study of the issue.

[The government is spending a lot of money trying not to spend money on travel]

The study by PMIC Inc. describes in dramatic terms a diminished U.S. standing here and abroad for publicly funded research, concluding that innovations in health, safety, national security and defense are hurting.

“The absence of U.S. government scientists creates a void in global innovation and collaboration that will likely be filled by our competitors unless we act swiftly and decisively to remediate damage and mitigate inevitable further risks to government [science and technology] force mission‐critical goals attributable to restrictive travel policy,” the study says.

The travel clampdown, ordered by the Office of Management and Budget in 2012, created an entire new bureaucracy at most agencies, many of which hired new staffs to process scientists’ requests to attend or present their research at conferences.

OMB said in a statement that agencies must balance the need to reduce wasteful spending with ensuring that their employees “can engage in opportunities to deliver upon their missions and discover breakthrough advancements in their chosen fields, including medicine and science.”

“Administration efforts to reduce wasteful spending related to travel and conference activities have saved billions in taxpayer dollars,” the statement said.

Mait, meanwhile, says he is continuing to educate as many people in Washington as he can about the importance of in-person collaboration to the advancement of science.