Sandra H. Magnus is executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.
It’s been over three years since an inspector general’s report shone a spotlight on a lavish, taxpayer-funded training conference held by the General Services Administration. Following the report’s release, Congress and the Office of Management and Budget placed well-intentioned restrictions on federal workers’ travel to scientific and technical meetings — and in doing so diminished their ability to engage in the collaboration with private-sector peers that is so critical to scientific innovation.
The pendulum swung too far. Government participation at key conferences, whether at the agency or individual level, was dramatically curtailed, and the restrictions continue to inhibit engagement. This is of special concern with respect to technical conferences, where leading minds in academia, government and industry gather to exchange ideas about scientific advances. Furthermore, a March report from the Government Accountability Office revealed that federal workers often have to wait months to receive approval to participate in conferences, sometimes obtaining authorization just days before an event begins, preventing many scientists and engineers from accepting speaking roles. Delayed approvals also lead to last-minute bookings and increased travel costs, all borne by taxpayers.
In response to the new rules, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) has joined with more than 100 scientific and engineering organizations to advocate the immediate easing of travel restrictions on federal employees seeking to attend science and technology conferences. Coalition members have held meetings with key policymakers and are working with Congress and the White House to reduce the impact on the scientific community. Unfortunately, no solution is in sight, and some lawmakers have even proposed legislation that would impose additional burdens.
The AIAA has also recently collaborated with other scientific societies, in an effort led by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, to encourage members to share stories illustrating some of the ways that scientific and technical conferences benefit the federal workforce.
Carl Scott, an AIAA associate fellow and a former employee at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, explained how his attendance at AIAA and American Physical Society conferences enabled him to present research and make contacts with other researchers with similar interests. These collaborations resulted in a better understanding of the heating environment on board the space shuttle and other spacecraft during reentry, including the Orion multipurpose crew vehicle currently being developed. Now a NASA consultant, Scott continues to work with those contacts to document the results of thermal-protection system tests.
Participation in scholarly meetings is a critical component in the career development of scientific researchers, whether federally employed or not. Among the stories collected is how an AIAA forum allowed Gregory Scott to meet several space robotics professionals while still a PhD student; this networking opportunity eventually led him to the Naval Research Laboratory’s robotics research program, where he obtained a job and continues to contribute to the advancement of robotics technology. Another AIAA member who works at the Federal Aviation Administration said he owes his career to knowledge he accumulated at technical conferences. Now one of the senior members of his team, it pains him that younger colleagues are being denied this opportunity, hindering their career development.
There are many more stories like these, and lawmakers need to hear them. The restrictions on conference participation threaten the quality of research at our federal labs, the stature of U.S. science on the global stage and agencies’ abilities to recruit and retain the best and brightest.