Sandra H. Magnus is executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.
It’s been over three years since an inspector general’s report shone a spotlight on a lavish, taxpayer-funded training conference held by the General Services Administration. Following the report’s release, Congress and the Office of Management and Budget placed well-intentioned restrictions on federal workers’ travel to scientific and technical meetings — and in doing so diminished their ability to engage in the collaboration with private-sector peers that is so critical to scientific innovation.
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. This is of special concern with respect to technical conferences, where leading minds in academia, government and industry gather to exchange ideas about scientific advances. Furthermore, a March report from the Government Accountability Office revealed that federal workers often have to wait months to receive approval to participate in conferences, sometimes obtaining authorization just days before an event begins, preventing many scientists and engineers from accepting speaking roles. Delayed approvals also lead to last-minute bookings and increased travel costs, all borne by taxpayers.