Facetime: It Works for Congress–and for Science, too

In an unseasonable lowering of temperatures last Thursday in Washington, D.C., both administration and Congress pulled back from catastrophic threats of furloughing thousands of National Weather Service employees this summer. The fact that NWS had defied Congress by reassigning funds to cover shortfalls no longer seems to be a reason to make the summer miserable for agency employees and the public. All parties involved are cooperating toward more measured solutions.
These days, any lowering of tensions in a politically explosive dispute is rare enough to warrant further investigation. In this case, it turns out there’s a physical cause behind the judicious political outcome. AMS Policy Program Director Bill Hooke trenchantly noted the significance of the location of the House of Representatives hearing at which Congress considered option of massive NWS furloughs: a “cramped, windowless room”, as reported by Government Executive. Hooke contrasted the intimacy of the setting with the “cavernous” hearing rooms one normally sees in televised proceedings on the Hill. He writes on his blog, Living on the Real World,

The former, more intimate settings force recognition by all parties that “we – those of us in this room – we’re  in this together.” They encourage the behavior and actions apparently seen yesterday which balance fixing the problem as well as the blame.

It is ironic that at the very time when Congress resorts to the old-fashioned face-to-face method of communication to resolve a problem, some in Congress are moving to restrict scientists’ ability to communicate face to face. We’re referring to an amendment to the Postal Service Act that was approved by voice vote in the Senate in April stating, among other things, that

  • government agencies would not be able to sponsor employees’ attendance at more than one conference per fiscal year sponsored by any given external organization
  • presence at conference abroad would be limited to 50 (domestically-based) employees of any one agency
  • funding for any single conference cannot exceed $500,000.
  • Post online quarterly justification and itemizations of all conference spending.
  • Post online all minutes, presentations, and other documentation of conferences attended by government employees.

Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma introduced the amendment (S.Amdt.2060) in response to recent revelations of seemingly lavish spending by the General Services Administration at a Las Vegas conference. Coburn and the amendment’s co-sponsors believe that there are abuses of the use of travel and conference funding throughout the Federal government and that transparency and limits will enable better oversight and reduce waste. Coburn’s office has been aiming to reduce conference expenditures to 80 percent of 2010 levels.
However, scientists and others say the proposed rules will do far more than limit excesses. Some organizations (including AMS) sponsor multiple specialized conferences, each of which appeals to different offices within single government agencies. Others have very large conferences (think the 20,000 plus attending the American Geophysical Union’s week-long Fall Meeting) that attract huge contingents of government scientists and educators for multiple days and presentations. The AGU, which urges its members to write to Congress, explains that

Government attendance at scientific meetings not only fosters collaboration and future partnerships between government scientists and academia and industry, but the collaboration and exchange of ideas also avoids duplicative scientific efforts and stimulates new concepts. While it is extremely important to eliminate wasteful government spending, Congress should consider ways to avoid excesses that will not also inadvertently damage the United States’ scientific enterprise.

Meanwhile this month the American Society of Association Executives sent an open letter to Congress to oppose the amendment. ASAE explained to its members,

while there may be a need for more transparency and oversight for government sponsored conferences and travel, there is a legitimate need for government employees to attend private educational conferences in order to work with the private sector on best practices and shaping public policy. Most members of Congress have understood and support this position….Senator Coburn’s office has indicated they are open to modifications, but they have not yet shared any amended language. In addition, in some meetings a few members of Congress have questioned why federal employees cannot participate in meetings through Skype or teleconference. We share with these offices the value of face-to-face meetings and how important in-person collaboration can be on so many issues, from food safety to national defense to low-income housing and many others.

Indeed, scientists—despite being stereotyped as non-communicators for years for staring at their feet when talking to nonscientists at parties and burying their heads in their computers in their offices–are actually very dependent on the face-to-face interactions at conferences, large and small. These days, e-mail and scientific journals help keep everyone up-to-date, but conferences are a chance to exchange ideas, form collaborations, and prevent larger wastes of effort, duplication, and fantastical hopes that can ensue when scientists hole up in their labs for too long. Science is a marketplace of ideas: pet theories can become blind alleys unless they are short-circuited by the dose of reality that a public presentation forces on investigators. In other cases the clash of opposing ideas festers unless face-to-face communication is possible, opening up opportunities for collaborative solutions. Conferences are much more than sitting in a room watching a presentation that could be delivered over the internet.
ASAE has a great tip-sheet on the value of meetings. It points out that in business, the health of companies depends on travel and personal interaction with clients. Given that science is the engine of innovation in an increasingly technologically dependent world, it’s safe to say that the nation’s long-term economic and environmental health will continue to need busy scientists–including government scientists–to get out of their offices and into conferences together.