Created by on 10/15/2012

On Wednesday, October 3rd, Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) President Judith S. Bond, PhD and Madeleine Jacobs (Executive Director of the American Chemical Society) met with senior staff from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to discuss OMB’s new travel and meeting attendance policies for federal employees. The meeting was part of FASEB’s ongoing advocacy effort with a group of organizations in the scientific community who are educating lawmakers about the importance of federal support for meetings and conferences.
OMB staff mentioned that protecting taxpayers’ dollars has been a priority for President Obama for the last several years, and reminded Drs. Bond and Jacobs that agencies have been instructed to look for efficiencies big and small. It was noted that even before the scandal involving the General Services Administration conference in Las Vegas, OMB asked agencies to be more efficient with travel expenditures. Nonetheless, negative publicity about federal employees at lavish meetings will be damaging, and the science community should take steps to preserve public support for the investment in research.
OMB and OSTP fully understand the implications of the travel policies that were instituted in May and are very sympathetic to the concerns of the scientific community. Science and technical meetings were characterized as “mission critical.” OMB has been working with the leadership of the individual departments and has talked to the heads of many federal science agencies, including the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, and the Department of Energy Office of Science about the impact of the new policies.
With regard to the 30 percent reduction in travel expenditures, OMB believes that a substantial portion of the savings can be achieved by eliminating non-essential travel and more efficient spending. Costs for necessary trips can be reduced by using the lowest airfare, staying in less expensive hotels, and sharing rental cars.
Asked what advice they had for the science/engineering community, OMB staff recommended:
  • Eliminate risk for potential federal participants when publicizing meetings. Conference activities and promotional materials should emphasize the professional content and not the amenities of the meeting.
  • Organizations should advise federal personnel to start early when seeking permission from their agency to attend meetings and conferences. Personnel cannot wait until the last minute to register or ask for permission, especially if the agency head is going to seek a waiver from the new restrictions. Organizations should be very clear about the “return on investment” from the meeting.
  • Where possible, use technology to enable federal employees to attend virtually. Dr. Bond and Ms. Jacobs pointed out the difficulty of this for a science/technical meeting where there are dozens upon dozens of concurrent sessions.
  • Communicate to OMB and OSTP if there are problems. Organizations should monitor the effects of the OMB policies on their members and let OMB know if they are encountering problems. OMB and OSTP are concerned about “unintended consequences” of the new policy on mission-critical science. They do not want to diminish the effectiveness of critical science; if there are serious problems that organizations can point to, groups should ask OMB to adjust the policy or speak to federal stakeholders about the way that the policies are being implemented. The current situation was seen as analogous to the post-9/11 changes in visa regulations. There were initial disruptions caused by the new policies. However, over time, conditions improved as everyone became familiar with the new procedures. OMB and OSTP were optimistic that with better communication organizations can prevent permanent harm to the federal role in scientific meetings and conferences.