Federal government cuts travel costs; scientists warn of collaboration lost

'That is what the taxpayers are paying for — the spread of scientific information'

March 17, 2013|By Yvonne Wenger, The Baltimore Sun

Florence P. Haseltine knows the power of scientists meeting face to face. The former researcher at the National Institutes of Health notes a list of milestones achieved through networking and collaboration at conferences, such as the deliberations that led to advances that helped slow the spread of HIV.

Now Haseltine, former director of the Center for Population Research of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in Rockville, worries that travel restrictions imposed on federal agencies could curb scientific advances.

Researchers could be prevented from communicating their work to other scientists, said Haseltine, an obstetrician and gynecologist and founder of the Society for Women's Health Research. "That is what the taxpayers are paying for — the spread of scientific information."

The Office of Management and Budget says agencies saved $2 billion by cutting travel costs of federal employees from $11.7 billion to $9.7 billion in the past two fiscal years.

The OMB imposed travel restrictions after a 2010 junket by the General Services Administration to Las Vegas that cost taxpayers more than $820,000.

Travel has been further limited and, at some agencies, stopped by the across-the-board federal budget cuts called the sequester.

Daniel I. Werfel, controller for the Office of Management and Budget, told Congress the Obama administration was working to eliminate government waste, including unnecessary trips and conferences.

"Our efforts are by no means complete, and there is more work to be done," Werfel told the federal workforce subcommittee of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform last month. "Nevertheless, the progress to date represents a significant down payment on the president's goals of cutting waste and creating a government for the 21st century."

Officials at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda said scientists are still participating in seminars, even with the restrictions. Post-doctoral fellows may attend at least one scientific meeting each year. Opportunities for more junior scientists, such as graduate students, to attend conferences are not guaranteed.

Joshua Zimmerberg, a senior researcher with the institutes and a councilor for the Assembly of Scientists, called the restrictions arbitrary and unfair to federal scientists. The restrictions hamstring federal scientists, he said, but they do not affect academic researchers funded by the government.

Zimmerberg said federal scientists are uniquely positioned to carry out long-term research that can outlast the life of a grant. "The federal government has the ability to carry out the pure research that's at the heart of innovation," he said. "It's all federal money. We're really being discriminated against."

If federal scientists cannot share the cutting-edge information discussed at conferences, he said, it is patients who will suffer.

Haseltine gave an example of how interaction among scientists benefits the population. In the 1980s, she said, young researchers petitioned more senior scientists in the mid-1980s to pay more attention to the spread of HIV, which resulted in advances in condoms as a form of protection.

"You wouldn't restrict a soldier from going to Afghanistan if he or she is needed," she said. "It's part of the job."

The Office of Management and Budget says travel by federal employees is often necessary. But in guidelines announced last May, the OMB required each agency to spend at least 30 percent less in the current fiscal year than in 2010 — and hold at that level through 2016.

The guidelines also call for plans to attend any conference expected to cost more than $100,000 to be reviewed at the deputy secretary level.

Funding for travel, technology, printing, executive fleets and promotional items, such as plaques and clothing, was reduced by at least 20 percent from 2010 levels.

Even with the restrictions in place, federal agencies held more than 750 conferences in the past fiscal year, at a cost of more than a quarter-billion dollars, according to Rep. Blake Farenthold, the Texas Republican who chaired the Feb. 27 House subcommittee hearing.

Farenthold called the meeting to determine whether new laws are necessary to control travel.

"We want to ensure a GSA Las Vegas-type conference never happens again," Farenthold said.

Werfel said several agencies had achieved major cuts. The Department of Agriculture decreased travel spending by more than $125 million in the past fiscal year, he said.

The Department of Homeland Security has avoided spending $4 billion since 2009 in a wide-ranging effort that has included replacing noncritical travel with conference calls and online communications, according to a spokeswoman.

Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service, said the federal government shouldn't lose sight of the goal.

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