Friday, April 23, 2010

Do Not Pass Go....

In my government agency, travel to scientific conferences must be justified and permission obtained from the powers-that-be. Domestic conferences require "only" that the individual traveler show justification, e.g., symposium invitation, plans to give a paper, etc. and then get approval from one’s immediate supervisor. For international conferences, you must get your name on an “International Conference list” well in advance for each quarter of the year. In addition, you must initiate your travel authorization 45 days in advance of travel to a foreign location. You must fill out paperwork documenting all sources of funds for the travel, estimates of costs, etc. Then, there are all the various restrictions covering air and other travel to navigate (Federal employees may only use American carriers unless they do not fly to your destination).  Travel by Federal employees to a foreign location also requires “country clearance”, which must be obtained from the U.S. Embassy in each country. Failure to take these steps precisely can lead to disapproval of your travel.

When more than five people from an agency plan to attend an international conference, special permission must be obtained from the Dept. of State. The people who make those decisions are constantly questioning the need for scientists to be attending scientific conferences. Often, deep suspicion is expressed as to the real motives behind several scientists from a single agency needing to attend a major international conference.  There are often more than five scientists from my branch who might attend the same conference, not to mention those across the entire agency.  The real reason for such scrutiny is concern about how the expense would be justified to the public if there were ever any questions about use of government funds. The more people from an agency attending a conference, the greater the total expenditure. I suppose the magic number of five relates to some threshold travel cost per conference that is likely to trigger public outrage.

Conference travel has been particularly targeted because, I suppose, of the possibility for abuse and also because conference venues tend to be in places like Las Vegas or New Orleans as opposed to Cleveland or Duluth (no offense to those cities). Agencies are warned to “exercise strict fiscal responsibility when choosing a site to conduct a conference, especially if the site might be considered extravagant in the public eye.” Note the term “conduct”--as if the traveler has any say in the selection of the conference venue. I suppose we could restrict our conference travel to those locations that no one would ever want to go—but conference organizers aren’t going to select such places and instead pick sites with appropriate conference facilities, are located in a large city with an international airport, and that will attract the most attendees. Large science societies accept proposals from various countries and cities wanting to host the next international conference—and then select the best one.

Permission to travel (to a foreign location) is often not given until just a few days prior to travel. Therefore, one must purchase a refundable ticket, pay registration and abstract fees (often not refundable), make hotel reservations (sometimes not refundable) in anticipation of being allowed to travel, but without any idea of when or whether that permission will come. So there you are, just hours before departure wondering if you are going or not. I’ve heard of colleagues who were sitting at the airport when their travel approval came through. If permission is denied for the group or for you individually, then you must cancel all plans and stay home. This, of course, wreaks havoc with conference schedules to have speakers drop out at the last minute. Fortunately, this has not happened to me, although there have been some close calls.

Obviously, scientists must participate in scientific conferences. It’s part of what we do as scientists—mingle with other scientists to present our work, to find out what our competitors are up to, and to make contacts that will prove useful in the future. Many of us have grant funds that include anticipated costs for conference travel as well as for fieldwork and other job-related travel—yet we must still justify such expenses.

Scientists in academia have not yet been subjected to this level of accountability, but I won’t be surprised if this changes in the future.

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