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   november 2012

    


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GSA Conferences Scandal Affecting Participation of Federal Scientists and Engineers in Society Conferences

By Chris Brantley

Revelations that the federal General Services Administration (GSA) spent over $823K on a Western Region Conference held in Las Vegas in 2010 prompted a congressional investigation, introduction of  legislation and issuance of an Executive Branch directive on agency conference spending that is significantly impacting the participation of federal scientists and engineers in society conferences.

GSA is the federal agency responsible for federal acquisition policies and managing federal properties.  In investigating the Western Regions Conference, Congress identified a pattern of lavish spending by GSA on conferences dating back several administrations.  Currently, 77 different GSA conferences are under review.

As soon as the scandal broke, Republican leaders in the House and Senate moved to attach conference provisions to current legislation moving in each body.  In the House, Congressman Darryl Issa offered a conferences amendment to his Digital Accountability and Transparency Act of 2011 (H.R. 2146) or DATA Act  that would require the a 20 percent cut in federal spending on conferences and restrict federal agencies to sending personnel to only one non-agency-sponsored conference per year.  Similar language was appended by Senator Tom Coburn to the 21st Century Postal Services Act (S. 1789) in the Senate.  Both bills were approved in their respective bodies on 25 April but have not seen action in the opposite chambers since referral.

The Issa and Coburn amendments prompted a response by the association community, warning that their provisions would have “a chilling effect on government employees’ participation in non-governmental meetings and conferences.”  IEEE joined several hundred other associations in a joint letter to Congress organized by the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) that called on Congress to limit the restrictions to federally sponsored conferences only, and to remove the restriction limiting support to one conference per agency per year.

At this juncture, IEEE-USA also joined the fray, communicating its concerns to the Senate.  In a 9 May letter to Senator Joseph Lieberman, sponsor of the Postal Services Act, IEEE-USA President Jim Howard cautioned that “limiting federal participation in scientific and technical conferences would not only adversely impact the ability of those federal agencies to advance their critical missions in such S&T dependent fields as health information, cybersecurity, defense and energy, but would also undermine the overall federal effort to promote innovation, economic growth and continued U.S. technological competitiveness."

Fueled by election year politics, the GSA scandal continued to drive high levels of Congressional interest, even as support for passage of the Data and the Postal Services Acts waned.  Rep.  Joe Walsh introduced new legislation, specifically targeted at the conferences issue.  The GSA Act of 2012 (H.R. 4631) proposed a 30 percent cut in federal reimbursements for travel through 2017; outlined $100K and $500K approval thresholds for federal expenditures on specific conferences (with requirements of high-level reviews and waivers); and imposed a public access requirement on all materials delivered by federal attendees at conferences (e.g. papers, video, etc.).   The spending cap in the GSA Act would extend through 2017.

The Walsh bill was reported out of committee on 27 June and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor indicated plans to bring it to the House floor under a suspension of the rules prior to Congress’s August break.  However, the press of other legislation delayed the House vote on the GSA Act until September, when it passed by voice vote on 11 Sept.   The bill was referred to the Senate, which quickly adjourned for the elections, but remains live legislation (along with the DATA and Postal Act bills) if the Senate decides to take up the conferences issue in its post-election lame-duck session.

In an attempt to head off legislation and show that it was managing the issue effectively, the White House issued a management directive through the Office of Management and Budget (OMB)  on 11 May.  Entitled “Promoting Efficient Spending to Support Agency Operations,” the OMB Directive called on agencies to reduce spending on conference-related reimbursements by 30 percent, and established spending caps with an agency waiver process for federal conference participation costs totaling $100K, and an “Exceptional Circumstances” waiver for conferences with federal costs of  $500K or more.  OMB defined conferences to include any “meeting, retreat, seminar, symposium or event that involves attendee travel.”  Covered expenses include “all direct and indirect conference costs paid by the government, whether paid directly by agencies or reimbursed by agencies to travelers or others associated with the conference, but do not include funds paid under Federal grants to grantees.”

As federal agencies began to implement the OMB directive, impacts on various science and engineering society technical conferences began to manifest, from withdrawal of federal exhibitors, to resignation of federal employees serving in conference leadership positions, to reductions in conference attendance.   Some association conferences, such as the annual meeting of the American Astronautical Society, were so severely impacted that they were canceled.  IEEE conferences, both large and small, have been affected in various ways, from Supercomputing and MilCom to the IEEE Nuclear Science Symposium and Medical Imaging Conference.

Within already cash-strapped federal agencies, the directive allowed managers to restrict conference participation in various ways, often resulting in significant inconsistencies in practice between agencies.  Some managers restricted participation to 10 persons or less.  Some agencies required participation levels be kept below the $100K threshold (which effectively limits participation to 40-50 persons) or limited participation to conferences deemed by management to be “mission-critical.”  Other agencies established internal review processes requiring 90 days, and, in some instances, as much as one year advance notice of requests to attend professional technical conferences.

Another emerging problem is the scope of the restriction.  In addition to professional technical conferences, some agencies and departments are restricting travel to participate in federal advisory committee meetings, National Academy/National Research Council meetings, standard-setting meetings, and official international engagements.

Agencies are also addressing the accounting of expenses differently.  Some are counting conference grants against the spending limits; others are not.  And some agencies are apparently counting salary and benefits provided to employees during the time spent at conferences as part of their conference-related expense.

IEEE-USA and other affected science and engineering societies began collaborating on the issue in July, sharing concerns with OMB and with Congress, and working to educate legislators on the value that the federal government and federal scientists and engineers derive from participation in technical conferences.

In August, IEEE-USA joined with the Association of Computing Machinery, the Computing Research Association and the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (all co-sponsors of Supercomputing 2012) in a communication to the President's S&T Advisor John Holdren and to Congress urging that recognized scientific, technical and educational meetings and meetings of  national and international standards bodies be exempted from the federal restrictions.  The letter was highlighted in a New York Times piece (23 Oct. 2013), in which ACM President Vint Cerf noted “the inability of government researchers and program managers to participate in these conferences is actually very damaging.”

In anticipation that Congress might take up conferences-related legislation in its post-election “lame-duck” session,  IEEE-USA joined with other science and engineering societies in endorsing a 5 Oct. letter by the Materials Research Society to Congressional leaders cautioning against onerous restrictions on travel to professional meetings.  According to MRS:

“Unlike many professions, the nature of scientists' work requires them to share research findings with their peers and colleagues at scientific conferences and meetings. This peer collaboration process is fundamental to scientific advances and is unlikely to be achieved without this personal interaction. The impact is seen in national security, energy, health sciences, and many other fields of endeavor from which our country has benefited over many years.”

More recently, the IEEE-USA released a position statement on “Participation in Professional Conferences By Government Scientists and Engineers.”  The statement reminds federal recipients of existing White House directives, reinforcing the importance of professional development of federal scientists and engineers through participation in professional conferences.

The position highlights the value of conference participation as an efficient way to advance innovation and support agency missions, as well as a valuable resource for the professional development of the participating federal scientists

In its statement, IEEE-USA recommends that OMB  clarify its definition of meetings so that it does not cover meetings involving Federal Advisory Committees, National Academies meetings, standards-setting bodies, and official international engagements.  It also urges the Administration to exempt professional science and engineering conferences from its travel and conference restrictions.

While IEEE-USA and other society recommendations have fallen on largely sympathetic ears, the political potency of the GSA Scandal makes it difficult, if not impossible for either party in Congress or for the Administration to back off its current restrictions. After the election, there is some hope that OMB will tweak its directive to clarify definitions and improve consistency of application among the affected federal agencies. 

However, the underlying driver of the OMB policy is the need of the federal government to reduce overall expenditures, and that is not likely to change in the foreseeable future.  Unfortunately, the GSA Scandal gave agencies a tool and a rationale to justify cutting back their participation in science and engineering conferences as a way to reduce spending, which is likely to have continuing impacts on federal science and engineering professionals and the science and engineering societies for years to come.

For Additional Reading

Postal Reform Act (S. 1789) (Sec. 501a4)
http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d112:s.01789:

DATA Act (H.R. 2146) (Sec. 308)
http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d112:h.r.02146:

GSA Act (H.R. 4631)
http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d112:h.r.04631:

OMB Directive M-12-12 (May 11)
http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/omb/memoranda/2012/m-12-12.pdf

IEEE-USA Position Statement on Participation of Federal Scientists and Engineers in Professional Conferences
http://www.ieeeusa.org/policy/positions/profconferences1012.pdf

Other Referenced EEE-USA Policy Communications
http://www.ieeeusa.org/policy/policy/index.html

 

Comments on this story may be emailed directly to Today's Engineer or submitted through our online form.

 

Chris Brantley is IEEE-USA's managing director in Washington, D.C.

Comments may be submitted to todaysengineer@ieee.org.

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