SAN FRANCISCO—What happened in Vegas didn't stay in Vegas. And now federal scientists are watching their travel funding disappear.
Limits put in place after a now-infamous General Services Administration conference in Las Vegas two years ago -- which featured a magician, a $75,000 bike-building exercise and other lavish touches -- have cut the number of federal researchers attending scientific gatherings like the American Geophysical Union's fall meeting, held here this week.
Scientists ranging from rank-and-file researchers to the heads of federal science agencies say they are concerned the new rules will inhibit their ability to collaborate and publicize federally funded research.
"The number of scientists able to participate in scientific conferences is lower," said NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco. "It is a very real concern, because scientific conferences are an important way for scientists to stay current in their fields."
U.S. Geological Survey chief Marcia McNutt said she began pressing Interior Department leadership this summer to approve plans for more than 500 agency employees to attend the AGU meeting, a process that was not completed until last week, days before the event started.
"For us this was a heroic effort to get it done," McNutt said.
The rules the White House announced in May direct all agencies to cut their travel spending by 30 percent. Agencies cannot spend more than $100,000 on a single conference without approval from a deputy secretary. A bill of $500,000 or more must be approved by the secretary in charge of an agency.
That has prompted an outcry from scientific societies, whose leaders say they sympathize with the need to reduce waste and control spending but worry about unintended consequences of reducing scientists' travel.
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Scientific meetings "offer participants opportunities for synergies that are almost impossible to replicate in any other way," the presidents of the American Physical Society and the American Chemical Society wrote in an op-ed published in the The Hill in September. "Impromptu conversations in the corridors outside the lecture rooms have led to transformational discoveries."
Ginger Pinholster, a spokeswoman for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said her group is "concerned about both the [travel rules] as well as the threat of a budget sequestration," automatic spending cuts set to take effect in January.
One researcher told her yesterday that he could not accept an invitation to present his work at the AAAS's annual meeting in Boston early next year, Pinholster said, because the Defense Department has decided to "shut down all travel deemed not mission-critical" if sequestration is not averted.
Christine McEntee, AGU's executive director, said the impact of the new travel limits was apparent as the early registration period for her society's conference came to a close in November with far fewer slots claimed by federal employees this year than in years past.
The society attempted to ease the pain for agencies by allowing federal employees to register at discounted "early bird" rates until last week. But the number of federal registrants fell 16 percent this year, to 2,100, even as overall attendance rose from 22,000 in 2011 to 23,000 this year.
"We've heard across the agencies that they have been having trouble in terms of getting approvals," McEntee said. "We're quite concerned about what this portends for the future. We're quite concerned about this limiting the exchange between scientists. Scientific meetings exist for advancing the science, and they're important for national security and our economy."