Loosen restrictions on government employee conference travel, say SPIE leaders

SPIE leaders step up advocacy to enable efficient interactions to advance science, technology

28 July 2014

ADELPHI, Maryland, and BELLINGHAM, Washington, USA -- Conference travel restrictions for U.S. government researchers are impacting morale, limiting professional development, and putting national security at risk, leaders of SPIE, the international society for optics and photonics, told representatives of technical societies and federal agencies gathered to discuss the issue on Friday 25 July.

SPIE was among nearly two dozen not-for-profit organizations and federal labs participating in a summit on the impact of federal government restrictions on scientific and technical conference attendance held at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory in Adelphi, Maryland.

"The inability to travel to technical conferences both in the U.S. and abroad diminishes the researcher's ability to learn about the latest developments and update or learn new skills. Reducing access by governmental employees to emerging research and connections with the academic and industrial science and technology communities hinders scientific discovery, as government science has always been vital for photonics innovation," SPIE CEO Eugene Arthurs said. The issue is one of several on which SPIE is working on behalf of its members and the larger community, he noted.

Arthurs said that support for exemptions and lower-authority-level approval of waivers for technical and scientific conference attendance is necessary in order for the U.S. to continue in its role as a global science and technology leader. "We will continue to pursue a reasonable resolution to this issue and to advocate for our constituents working for the federal government," he said.

Feedback gathered from government employees in the SPIE community on the impacts of current travel restrictions identified a range of issues:

  • Government scientists are isolated from the outside R&D community, thereby falling behind others in their fields, reducing the quality of research being conducted within the federal agency, and jeopardizing national security.
  • Early-career professionals are denied career development opportunities such as establishing important connections, presenting their work, and partaking of valuable educational resources, making government work a less attractive career path.
  • Senior scientists are unable to commit to serving as session or conference chairs, lessening their role in determining conference focus areas, eroding their credibility, and weakening professional relationships.
  • Research publication output for some agencies has hit a new low, and co-authorship with outside scientists is disappearing.
  • Researchers and program managers who are unable to meet with suppliers and collaborators in the conference location must make separate trips throughout the world to meet with each.
  • Per event quotas mean that some researchers are not able to attend the meetings where their core primary audiences are, diluting the impact and throttling communication of important results.
  • Timing of approval of requests to attend is often only a short time before the event, resulting in higher costs per attendee and an inability to serve as conference organizers or keynote speakers.

"We recognize that we have a self-interest in this, but our work has been initiated by and driven by SPIE leadership who see the serious potential damage to the government science and technology infrastructure," Arthurs said.

SPIE, a not-for-profit educational society, organizes approximately two dozen technical conference events around the world annually. Government employees compose a large percentage of the society's 18,000 members and 256,000 constituents.

A memo issued in 2012 by the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) mandated reductions in travel spending by 30%, impairing the ability of staff in every department to attend conferences and training events. Updated guidelines published last year acknowledged that bringing federal employees together with peers and suppliers, particularly at scientific conferences, can be the most efficient and cost-effective means to advance missions and program goals. But constraints still remain for many.

SPIE has participated in a number of communications on the issue of travel restrictions from the outset, and deepened its involvement in 2014, Arthurs said.

Last January, SPIE met with the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Systems Engineering at the Pentagon to discuss ongoing issues at Department of Defense regarding the implementation of the OMB travel guidance.

In June, SPIE met with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to discuss how the administration could ease the approval process for scientific and technical conferences.

Most recently, the SPIE government affairs team has been lobbying to change language in a bill pending before Congress, S.1347, which would codify limitations on some government travel. SPIE initiated a sign-on letter opposing a specific provision within the bill and found strong support across technical societies. The letter was delivered to members of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee last week.

SPIE is the international society for optics and photonics, a not-for-profit organization founded in 1955 to advance light-based technologies. The Society serves nearly 256,000 constituents from approximately 155 countries, offering conferences, continuing education, books, journals, and a digital library in support of interdisciplinary information exchange, professional networking, and patent precedent. SPIE provided more than $3.2 million in support of education and outreach programs in 2013.


Amy Nelson
Public Relations Manager
+1 360 685 5478