As sequester grounds federal researchers, conference organizers sing the blues

More than environmental programs, more than salaries, pensions, contracts or research, politicians love to cut government travel.

It's an easy target as lawmakers look to scale back government spending; since 2011, the White House has forced agencies to cut billions of dollars from their travel coffers. In a world of email, Skype and webinars, flying thousands of miles for face-to-face meetings seems like a luxury.

Now, as agencies pare down budgets under sequestration, travel again is on the cutting block.

But government researchers say that targeting travel is shortsighted, preventing them from attending important conferences that key them into the wider scientific community.

"I think it's totally unfair when the expectation of doing your job relies on doing the best available science," said Gabriela Chavarria, the science adviser at the Fish and Wildlife Service. "For agencies like ours, it's a need. It's a basic need for us to do the work that we do."

Such conferences are far different from the one hosted in 2010 by the General Services Administration. That conference -- infamous for its $800,000 price tag and lavish entertainment -- focused on management. But scientific conferences serve as a forum for researchers across agencies, companies and countries to swap data, present findings and generate ideas.


That world is now in upheaval, due to the quick disappearance of travel budgets at federal agencies.

Susan Newman, director of the Seismological Society of America, said that the group's conference attracted 650 people last year. This year, the original list included about 560 people. After sequestration, that dwindled to 500.

More disturbing, she said, was the affect on the conference's agenda. Federal scientists withdrew 17 papers and 19 presenters canceled; others had colleagues present their work.

In one case, Newman said, a federal scientist paid her own way to the conference -- and sat in the audience as her video presentation played. Because she wasn't there in an official capacity, she couldn't present her findings in person.

"The fact that we lost so many people -- it means that the government employees were not really able to see what else was going on out there," she said, adding that conferences provide a forum for not only formal presentations but informal conversations. "So it has a real impact on moving the science forward."

'Very unique venues'

To most of the world -- including lawmakers -- conferences are boring. Cutting them from the federal budget doesn't just seem prudent but also merciful.

Do federal employees really need an event as an excuse for more meetings?

The short answer, according to scientists: Yes.

"Conferences are seen very much as a sort of fluff at this point. We're all sort of suffering the consequences of the General Services Administration's Las Vegas scandal," said David Applegate, the associate director for natural hazards at the U.S. Geological Survey. "Scientific exchange is definitely collateral damage in that whole environment."

He went on to list the numerous benefits of gathering scientists in one place. Scientists are able to get feedback from their peers, keep up to date on ongoing research, try out leadership roles, learn about new opportunities and, of course, add to their professional resumes.

"It is somewhat intangible and it's not one of those things that is immediately apparent," he said, but "scientific meetings are a crucial part of the scientific process."

USGS scientists also look forward to conferences as a one-stop shop for swapping research and techniques with scientists who are usually halfway around the world.

For example, Applegate's division is hoping to develop an earthquake early warning system, which would enable USGS to issue warnings early enough so businesses can shut down, doctors can stop surgeries and airplanes can delay takeoffs.

That effort is aided by input from scientists all around the world, particularly those in Japan, which has already developed a warning system better than the one in the United States. The best way to get that input: conferences.

Chavarria, of FWS, described similar situations. When biologists at FWS can't attend conferences, she said, they are unable to present their work to the wider scientific community.

That can mean lost opportunities for scientific research. For example, an FWS biologist might report in a presentation that he has spent 20 years monitoring birds at a refuge; that data, in turn, could be useful to another scientist's work. Or perhaps the biologist just noticed the return of a certain species of bird -- another scientist might want to begin research on that phenomenon.

Without the conference, such connections might never be made, Chavarria said.

"We are not a science agency, we are a management and conservation agency. Our employees don't have in their job description to publish papers," she said.

Though many still try to publish, Chavarria said, "scientific conferences are one of the very unique venues we have to present out work."

'Singing the sequestration blues'

Agency officials are hopeful that the more drastic travel cuts are temporary -- the consequence of a sequester that they hope Congress will revoke next year.

But the effects will be felt far beyond this year.

Many conferences require scientists to submit abstracts almost one year in advance. Without reassurance that they will have the budget to travel next year, government scientists have little motivation to bid for a spot. Not only do abstracts take time to complete, it is a professional embarrassment to have to back out at the last minute.

This year's experience also no doubt hit morale hard. At FWS, about 25 employees were scheduled to make a presentation or moderate a panel at the National Adaptation Forum in April. Sequestration forced all of them to cancel weeks before the conference.

Similarly, USGS usually sends 75 employees to the Seismological Society's conference. Fourteen attended last month.

At the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, travel was limited to the National Hurricane Conference, a major event that includes federal, state and local officials. The agency also had to cancel the Coastal GeoTools 2013 Conference five days before it was to begin, causing participants to take a financial hit.

The organizers of some conferences are already concerned about next year.

The Seismological Society has already contracted the space for next year's conference in Anchorage, Alaska, which will coincide with the 50th anniversary of the largest earthquake in the continental United States. If government employees couldn't afford to go to Salt Lake City for this year's conference, will they be able to travel to Alaska?

Sponsorship is also an issue. Usually, agencies donate $1,000 to $10,000 to sponsor a conference.

For example, before sequestration, agencies had pledged about $50,000 for July's International Congress for Conservation Biology -- a third of the conference's budget. Sequestration forced them to all to back out.

The conference occurs every two years; now, three months before the event, organizers are attempting to find the money elsewhere.

"I'm singing the sequestration blues," said Anne Hummer, executive director of the Society of Conservation Biology, which holds the International Congress. The money, she said, helps bring international presenters; without it, the program will suffer.

"I'm trying to be optimistic," Hummer said. "I'm trying to have a sense a humor about all this, but it's a challenge."