In the aftermath of the GSA Las Vegas conference scandal, the White House issued restrictions on travel and conference spending (PDF) which we discussed here previously. Congress is once again wading into the issue with a House Government Oversight Committee hearing featuring three government witnesses: The Honorable Rush Holt, Representative for the 12th Congressional District of New Jersey, The Honorable Danny Werfel, Controller, U.S. Office of Management and Budget, and Ms. Cynthia Metzler, Chief Administrative Officer, U.S. General Services Administration.
While the overall hearing focused on overall government spending and GSA spending on travel and conferences, Congressman Holt specifically addressed scientific conferences. He noted that restrictions on government scientists attendance of conferences can hinder scientific collaboration and innovation. He stated that spending on research and scientists is not wasteful spending but rather that spending is an important investment.
Werfel noted that the restrictions had been increased to require agency spending on travel and conferences to be 30 percent below 2010 levels by 2013 and that agencies maintain that level through 2016. He noted that mission critical activities are protected from these required cuts so scientific collaboration should not be hindered.
Ranking Member Steve Lynch (D-MA) noted that in the House bill that would codify the OMB guidance, H.R. 313, agencies are limited to sending 50 people or less to a conference and that this is problematic for large scientific conferences such as the International AIDS Conference that sometimes has a thousand government scientists in attendance. He wondered if this type of limit was harming the efficacy and value of the conferences. Werfel stated that yes, that was a concern and allowing the agency heads to make the executive decision about how many people to send to maximize the agency mission would help alleviate that. He also noted that sometimes having higher numbers of employees attend one conference rather than having smaller numbers attend different conferences can create greater efficiencies of scale and cost savings.
Ranking Member Lynch also submitted a letter from AAAS and other science organizations with the scientific communities concerns for the record. CRA joined with other members of the computing community – USACM, IEEE-USA, and SIAM – in submitting a letter (PDF) to Congressional leaders and Administration officials last fall outlining concerns with the restrictions.