Scientific Groups Get Member Help in Conference Spending Fight

Still struggling to make the case that federal restrictions on travel spending are hurting research, scientific associations are trying a new tactic: They're asking those who have directly benefited from attending scientific conferences to offer their perspective through a crowdsourcing effort.

In their efforts to reduce the sting of strict federal travel rules, scientific groups have worked overtime to highlight the challenges this creates for sharing research, which often occurs at events.

They’ve combined their voices on multiple occasions to get travel restrictions loosened.

“The pendulum swung too far. Government participation at key conferences, whether at the agency or individual level, was dramatically curtailed, and the restrictions continue to inhibit engagement,” Sandra H. Magnus, the executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), wrote in a recent Washington Post op-ed.

But despite the compelling argument, associations have struggled to make their case to Congress, whose members have often used the issue as an example of government waste. Rather than give up, however, scientific groups in recent months have tried a new tactic: They’re asking their members to speak up and offer personal anecdotes on how important scientific meetings are in sharing research and generating new ideas.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the scientific world’s primary individual member organization, is leading the effort through a project called “Your Stories,” which encourages scientists—whether federal employees or those who gain from federal research—to explain the benefits they’ve received from science- and technology-related meetings. AIAA and other associations are also taking part in the initiative, encouraging their members to offer their take on the importance of face-to-face events.

“It is Imperative to Attend Conferences”

The responses vary widely—sometimes highlighting specific research, the role conferences play in building careers for attendees, and stories of lives defined by attendance at scientific conferences. In all cases, submissions emphasize how crucial these in-person gatherings are to improving research and discussion in scientific fields.

“There is something magical about seeing a presentation, talking with that person about their work, and then publishing a paper to which you both contribute your unique approach,” a Harvard Medical School employee wrote on the AAAS site. “That couldn’t happen without these crucial interactive sessions!”

Sometimes, though, the stories highlight individual challenges created by the conference restrictions.

“It is imperative to attend conferences in order to network with other scientists and foster new ideas and thus new sources of funds,” a Naval Research Laboratory scientist wrote. “We are competing with academic researchers for the same funding who have no restrictions on travel and networking.”

In her Washington Post op-ed, Magnus emphasized that the goal of the initiative is to offer legislators another perspective on an issue that often is viewed from only a financial side. She noted that these new challenges could threaten the future of scientific and technology research in the United States.

“There are many more stories like these, and lawmakers need to hear them,” she continued. “The restrictions on conference participation threaten the quality of research at our federal labs, the stature of U.S. science on the global stage and agencies’ abilities to recruit and retain the best and brightest.”


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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