April 2013

Scientific conferences under threat

“[M]any insights are possible only because of close, personal interactions among scientists who see each other regularly: those who do not work at the same university or laboratory must rely on interacting with each other at conferences.”
– U.S. Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., Feb. 27, 2013

Communication and collaboration are cornerstones of the research enterprise, and scientific conferences are essential for the exchange of ideas that lead to breathtaking breakthroughs. Any scientist who attends a conference gains some insight into what others in his or her field are doing and just how unique his or her own work is. A bill under consideration in the U.S. House of Representatives, however, could severely limit the ability of federal scientists to take part in such conferences.
Written in response to a scandal concerning wasteful spending on conferences by those at the U.S. General Services Administration, the Government Spending Accountability Act of 2013 (officially known as House Resolution 313) could cause significant damage to the scientific community if it passes.
While H.R. 313 would, for the most part, pertain to travel for federal employees, such as scientists at the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the national labs, among others, the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology is concerned with four provisions in H.R. 313.
The bill states

  1. 1. That a federal employee giving a presentation at a conference also must make that presentation available on the agency’s website. This is problematic for scientists, because the reason for giving a presentation at a conference — to exchange ideas and find new paths forward — is very different from the reason for publication, which is to tell a complete story with a clear conclusion. Federal scientists, faced with either publishing their work prematurely or not giving presentations at conferences, may elect not to give presentations and may decide not to attend altogether, thereby limiting these important interactions.
  2. 2. That each agency will have a limited amount of funds that it may spend on employee travel expenses. Coordinating meeting attendance at an agencywide level could result in junior scientists missing out on opportunities to attend conferences, meet new mentors and further their careers.
  3. 3. That the amount of money a federal agency may use for conferences in a year will be limited. Many smaller conferences depend on federal grants to support meetings. Restricting these funds will reduce the opportunities for scientists to interact, collaborate and make innovative discoveries.
  4. 4. That no more than 50 agency employees may travel abroad for international conferences in a year. Some major international conferences, such as international AIDS conferences, are attended by hundreds of researchers from a single agency, and this interaction is important for the global fight against such diseases.

While the above provisions apply to federal scientists, all federally funded scientists could be affected if this bill’s provisions extend to grant study sections. Because grant reviewers are technically federal employees during a study section, H.R. 313 could limit travel to and from those meetings. Discussions at study sections that hash out the good and bad aspects of grant proposals are a necessary and beneficial part of the peer-review process.
While we at the ASBMB support the federal government’s goal to reduce wasteful spending, we favor a more nuanced approach than what is proposed in H.R. 313. We would prefer a bill that applies reasonable restrictions on travel that do not inhibit the mission of the agency. For scientific agencies, this means enough freedom to travel to meetings to ensure that the scientific enterprise is working efficiently. The current one-size-fits-all approach to travel restrictions could damage significantly the scientific enterprise and eliminate an important avenue of scientific collaboration.

Chris PickettChris Pickett (cpickett@asbmb.org) is the science policy fellow at the ASBMB.

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