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Federal Travel Restrictions for Conferences

Federal Travel Restrictions for Scientific and Technical Conferences

The Optical Society (OSA) expresses concern over restrictions on federal employees attending scientific and technical conferences.  Under the current guidelines, as outlined in OMB Memorandum M-12-12 and subsequently OMB Memorandum M-17-08, these practices are having an impact on the nation’s scientists and engineers, future innovation, and America’s ability to compete globally in science and technology.

OSA manages or serves as the contractor for 40+ meetings each year.  These meetings—many of which are designed to cover highly specialized research areas—are a valuable way for the technical community to drill down on a specific topic area and are widely attended by government scientists and engineers. For example, the OSA Computational Optical Sensing and Imaging (COSI) meeting covers the latest advances in computational imaging research, which is of particular interest to  Department of Defense (DOD) scientists.  At COSI, attendees present and hear the latest in fundamental physics, numerical methods, and physical hardware that has led to significant improvements in the fields of imaging and sensing for medical, defense, homeland security, inspection, testing applications. In addition, many of OSA’s other meetings or co-sponsored meetings, including the Conference on Lasers and Electro-Optics and Frontiers in Optics, draw influential attendees from NIST, NASA and DOE to name a few.

Importance of collaboration and networking

Scientific and technical conferences are an integral part of the scientific process, providing an opportunity for government scientists and engineers to share their technical knowledge with colleagues.  The conferences allow them to get valuable feedback, discuss new ideas, and grow professionally in their particular discipline.  Government scientists have the opportunity to learn about the latest cutting-edge technology and research, which helps inform and guide their taxpayer-funded work.  They also interface directly and build relationships with their colleagues from industry and academia—critical partnerships for advancing technologies that directly impact the mission of their agencies. 

Agency budget relevance

For those federal scientists and engineers involved in program management, these conferences save travel costs by providing an opportunity to meet directly with grantees and interested parties in one location.  By severely limiting the ability of federal government scientists and engineers to attend these conferences, they are losing access to valuable information that guides federal government decision-making in terms of R&D funding and resources.

Loss of relevance to scientific community

The travel guidelines have resulted in a delay in government scientists and engineers receiving travel permission to attend these conferences due to the different interpretations across the federal agencies.   In some situations, travel approval has not been granted until the week before a conference despite being submitted several months ahead of time. Even if permission is granted, oftentimes short-term travel, lodging, and registration costs are often significantly more expensive, resulting in higher costs. Due to this uncertainty, conference organizers cannot rely on government scientists as speakers and panel participants.  If these restrictions remain in place, fewer government speakers will participate in conferences, diminishing the role and relevance of U.S. government agencies in the global technical community.  The lack of U.S. government participation in conferences sends a clear message to the global community about the priority America places on R&D.

Effects on future workforce

Young graduates in the STEM fields, will be less likely to choose a career in government since their interactions with government scientists will be limited. At a time with an aging federal workforce and many baby boomers nearing retirement, enticing talented young professionals to work for the government is of great importance.

Impact on competitiveness and technology advancement

We understand that the original intent of the travel restrictions was to curb wasteful government spending. However, the implementation of these regulations has negatively impacted meaningful participation by federal scientists and engineers.  This impedes the dissemination of research that results in innovation and will have adverse, long-term consequences on U.S. competitiveness and national security.

OSA urges the Administration and Congress to revise the current travel restrictions on federal employees as it relates to scientific and technical meetings. Doing so will help ensure that the U.S. remains the leader in science and technology advancement.