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.
Chilling effect on Arctic and Antarctic researchers
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."
Dismay over the new rules bubbled over into the nonstop schedule of presentations and meetings here this week, which drew a wide array of experts in Earth and planetary science.
Scott Borg, who directs the National Science Foundation's Antarctic research office, acknowledged the impact of the travel restrictions during a meeting Tuesday of scientists who conduct federally funded research in Antarctica.
"The federal government has been put under a lot of pressure on travel thanks to the General Services Administration," Borg said just before he cued up a video message from Kelly Falkner, the head of NSF's Office of Polar Programs, who was not able to travel to San Francisco.
And a Monday morning session on polar ice began with Michael Studinger, a scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, announcing that "budget problems" had prevented one of the researchers who organized the series of talks from attending them.
That scientist, Jackie Richter-Menge of the Army Corps of Engineers' Cold Regions Research Laboratory in Hanover, N.H., also missed a Wednesday press conference to release a major government report on the Arctic that she helped edit.
Some agencies feel the pinch; others don't
Especially frustrating, many researchers said, is the wide variation in the way federal agencies are interpreting the new rules.
Several NASA employees said they had little trouble getting permission to come to the meeting, where agency researchers unveiled new results from the Mars rovers Curiosity and Opportunity, the Voyager mission to the edge of the solar system, and twin satellites studying gravity on the moon.
USGS also managed to send a sizable contingent, thanks to McNutt's lobbying, although the agency chief was quick to note that this year's attendees were limited to those presenting research, serving on AGU committees and boards, or receiving honors from the society.
NOAA was also well-represented. But many researchers said the Energy and Defense departments had greatly limited their employees' attendance at this week's meeting. No one from the Army Corps' research division was allowed to go, for example.
The Army Corps even refused travel assistance offered to its scientists by collaborators at other agencies, sources said. Some Army Corps scientists took matters into their own hands, using vacation time and their own money to get to San Francisco.
"For me, the frustration is the fact that good work is getting done by government employees and we're not able to showcase that. We're not able to show people what we are doing in support of our government and, frankly, those tax dollars," one Army Corps employee said. "I just don't think this was the intention of the restriction, and it's not being implemented consistently from one government agency to another."
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500