AIP FYI #102: The AIP Bulletin of Science Policy News - Update on OMB Travel Restrictions

Status Report From: American Institute of Physics
Posted: Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Scientific associations recently sent a letter to key Members of Congress about restrictions placed on federal employees traveling to conferences. In addition, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) sent an alert to Chief Financial Officers recognizing scientific collaboration as an example of a circumstance "in which physical collocation is necessary to complete the [federal agency] mission."

These actions follow the issuance of the May 2012 OMB memorandum M-12-12 requiring a 30 percent reduction in agency travel expenses, compared to FY 2010, for fiscal years 2013 through 2016. This memorandum imposed well-defined monetary limits and requirements for federal employee attendance at conferences.

A House hearing was held on these restrictions in February. Of note, Daniel Werfel, Controller of the Office of Management and Budget, described as "very legitimate" criticism and concerns expressed by the scientific community about the effect of the travel restrictions on researchers. Werfel told the subcommittee of his "growing appreciation for . . . how critical to the advancement of science collaboration is. When there is a scientific advancement or setback, the whole engine of science runs by co-locating and collaborating around it."

On April 17, three Member Societies of the American Institute of Physics - the American Geophysical Union, Acoustical Society of America, and The Optical Society - joined other professional societies and associations in a letter to OMB requesting affirmation of "the Administration's support of these open exchanges of information, and amend OMB guidance to specifically exempt federal employee travel to conferences, seminars, and meetings where attendance promotes agency interests as well as the professional development and competency of government scientists, engineers, or other specialized experts." The letter asked for clarification regarding meetings that would be exempted from the memorandum.

A letter with similar wording was sent to key Members of Congress in late May. This letter was signed by AIP and four of its Member Societies: the American Astronomical Society; American Geophysical Union; AVS: Science and Technology of Materials, Interfaces, and Processing; and the American Association of Physics Teachers and approximately 60 other associations. "We ask that you affirm Congress's support of these open exchanges of information, establishing legislative guidance that exempts federal employee travel to conferences, seminars, and meetings where attendance promotes agency interests as well as the professional development and competency of government scientists, engineers, or other specialized experts," this letter states.

The OMB recently issued a 3 1/2 page "Controller Alert: Travel and Conferences" document recognizing the important role that meetings play in the conduct of scientific research. The unsigned and undated memorandum advises that the previously announced spending reductions will continue and details implementation procedures for acceptable travel expenses. This alert, which appears on the website of the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE), states:

"Conferences and Travel that Support the Agency Mission"

"The Administration has taken aggressive steps to curtail conference spending and has installed strict policies and controls to ensure that conference expenditures are cost-effective and advance the mission and programmatic goals of each agency. As each agency reviews its travel and conference-related activities, it is critical for each agency to continue to recognize the important role that mission-related travel and conferences can often play in Government operations. Given the unique travel and conference needs of each agency, there are circumstances in which physical collocation is necessary to complete the mission. These circumstances may include, but are not limited to, collaborations in the scientific community, unique training events for the law enforcement community, or the need to perform formal inspections as part of an agency's oversight and investigatory responsibilities."

"In addition, bringing together Federal employees at a single location - such as for program reviews or technical evaluations, presentation of scientific findings, oversight boards or advisory group meetings, international engagements, and standards-setting committees - may be the most efficient and cost-effective means for reviewing Government-sponsored efforts, issues, or challenges. Several agencies rely on meetings with industry and academic colleagues to drive innovation and ensure continued advancement in related fields. Each agency needs to focus any conference and travel spending on mission-critical activities and to ensure any related spending is an effective and efficient use of Federal funds."

The full text of the alert appears on this ASAE site.

Richard M. Jones
Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics

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