What we’re watching in 2014: Travel of federal employees

Ever since a scandal concerning conference travel and spending by federal agencies erupted in mid-2012, Congress has been trying to pass legislation to restrict travel by federal employees. Two bills are currently trying to address this issue—H.R. 313, the Government Spending Accountability Act of 2013, and S. 1347, the Conference Accountability Act of 2013. H.R. 313 passed the U.S. House at the end of July while S. 1347 is awaiting action in the U.S. Senate. There are no major differences between the bills.

Attendance at conferences is an integral part of scientific discourse. Data are presented, important work is discussed and collaborations are forged. However, passage of these bills restricting the travel of federal employees will significantly affect the scientific enterprise:

  • Grant applicants from across the country enjoy meeting with program officers from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation at conferences to find out how to best improve their grant applications. Passage of these bills would curtail those discussions and put even more distance between grant applicants and funding decisions.
  • Second, scientists at the NIH would be restricted in attending conferences and presenting their work. Preventing the dissemination of data and information in this way would weaken the scientific enterprise.
  • Finally, these travel restrictions may affect the travel of scientists to study sections to review grant applications. In this instance, study sections may shift away from in-person meetings to teleconferences or video chats. This would certainly change the dynamic of the grant review process and may even affect who does or does not receive funding.

With the House already passing its version of the travel restrictions bill, all focus turns to the Senate. The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee, which has jurisdiction over issues concerning federal employees such as travel, will hold a hearing shortly to discuss the ramifications of passing such a bill. After that, it is unclear where this issue will go. Placing restrictions on federal employee travel has overwhelming bipartisan support. The best hope is that the Senate will write an exception into their version of the law to exempt or at least give some leeway to employee travel from federal science agencies.

Follow the ASBMB Policy Blotter to see what course this topic takes during 2014!

Important dates for travel of federal employees in 2014:

  • Jan. 14 – Senate HSGAC hearing on federal employee travel.

See what else we’re watching in 2014:

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