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Lubell: Reject Travel Rules That Stifle Science

GSA debacle has led to government policies that could shackle scientists

Scientists are frugal, especially physicists. I should know: I am one. Actually they’re quintessentially cheap. They would rather attend a meeting in Manhattan, Kan., than Manhattan in the Big Apple — just to save a few bucks.

So it’s remarkable that Congress and the White House are moving ahead in lockstep with policies that shackle government scientists to their laboratories, largely in response to the General Services Administration’s lavish spending on a Las Vegas conference in October 2010.

Contrast the GSA’s partying rep with the bad rap several thousand physicists got for not gambling enough during the American Physical Society’s 1986 “March Meeting,” which the nation’s largest physics organization held in the nation’s largest gaming mecca. Before the geeks left the city, the Las Vegas Sun carried the headline, “Physicists in Town, Lowest Casino Take Ever.” And after they departed, wallets still intact, Las Vegas told the American Physical Society never to return.

Despite the penchant scientists have for shunning pop entertainment in favor of brainy confabs, the Office of Management and Budget has promulgated rules that make it very difficult, and in some cases nearly impossible, for the penny-pinchers at national laboratories to attend major scientific conferences.

And Congress is now poised to enshrine the same rules in legislation — through an amendment to the 21st Century Postal Service Act of 2012 (S 1789), which the Senate passed 62-37 in late April, and the Government Spending Accountability Act of 2012 (HR 4631), also known as the “Walsh Bill,” which the House passed in September by voice vote on its suspension calendar.

The new rules restrict spending by a federal agency or department to $500,000 for any single conference. That may sound like a lot of money, but it isn’t.

For a five-day conference, including airfare, lodging, food and registration fee, a typical participant, even on a thrift plan, will spend about $2,500. The cap means that, absent a waiver by a Cabinet officer, only 200 government scientists can attend.

How does that number stack up with turnout at a typical scientific meeting? The American Physical Society’s March Meeting is a good example. It normally attracts about 10,000 scientists from around the world, including 600 to 700 from the Department of Energy laboratories. The new rules would strip away more than two-thirds of them.

Does it matter? After all, why can’t meeting organizers stream talks live and allow scientists anywhere in the world to watch the presentations? Doesn’t the Web — which, incidentally, high-energy physicists invented — permit that kind of remote interaction?

Yes, it does, but it doesn’t permit laboratory employees to engage in discussions that often take place in the corridors outside the conference rooms following scheduled presentations.

And it is just those impromptu conversations that often lead to new discoveries and innovations — the essence of the “next big thing.”

And those laboratory employees aren’t bureaucratic slouches. More often than not, they’re scientists who are at the top of the science game.

In the last 50 years, a score of them from the Department of Commerce and Department of Energy laboratories have received the Nobel Prize. More often than not, they collaborated with scientists from universities and industry. And in many cases, discussions they had with colleagues at scientific meetings inspired their work. The new rules will surely stifle such discussions and will cost our nation dearly far into the future.

The new rules will also erect barriers between federal program managers and the nation’s research community, preventing policymakers from staying current with cutting-edge science and preventing them from making the wisest decisions.

Even at a time when every federal dollar spent must be a dollar well spent, the travel restrictions on laboratory employees make only marginal sense. Simply to administer the program, Department of Energy sources estimate the agency is spending more than $5 million per year. And the savings it is achieving are barely that.

The budgetary travel cap may appear alluring to the elected stewards of a nation mired in debt, but its consequences could destroy the path that can lead us to renewed prosperity. In the short term, Congress can score a few political points by passing legislation that codifies the OMB rules. But in the long term, it will impede American innovation and competitiveness as the rest of the world passes us by.

With the 2012 elections behind us, the House and Senate should reject the temptation to enact the restrictive language contained in S 1789 and HR 4631, or at least provide waivers for laboratory scientists.

Michael S. Lubell is a professor of physics at the City College of the City University of New York and director of public affairs of the American Physical Society.

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