Government oversight bodies wary of fraudulent and unscrupulous expenditures made during agency-sponsored conferences have recently begun to crack down on how much money the agencies can spend, potentially to the detriment of legitimate exchanges of scientific information, say critics.
After reports were raised about the General Services Administration (GSA) spending huge sums on an extravagant Las Vegas conference featuring a clown, mind-reader and $7,000 in sushi rolls, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) issued a directive for agencies to dramatically scale back spending on travel and conferences.
The directive asked agencies to curtail their spending by 30% unless the travel was related to critical functions, such as the US Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) safety inspections of manufacturing facilities, and to put in place new controls limiting the amount agencies could spend on conferences without approval from top officials.
In the case of FDA, anything beyond $100,000 would require the approval of the Deputy Commissioner, currently a position assumed on an acting basis by John Taylor, while any spending in excess of $500,000 would require the approval of Commissioner Margaret Hamburg.
But these restrictions have worried some science advocates, who say initial fears that the spending caps could hurt the exchange of scientific information are becoming realized, particularly in fields where such exchanges are important. A group of technology policy advocates recently sent a letter to Congress and other government officials asks for an exemption for, "recognized scientific, technical and educational meetings [and] meetings of national and international standards bodies."
"We acknowledge the motivation behind these bills to prevent abuses and control expenses," wrote the Association for Computing Machinery's (ACM) US Public Policy Council (Letter - PDF). "The restrictions outlined in them, however, will curtail important professional interactions that take place during scientific conferences and meetings attended by federal scientists and engineers in the course of their duties."
For the pharmaceutical and medical device industries, these effects could be wide-ranging. FDA officials are criticized by some in industry for being insufficiently informed about bleeding-edge technologies, which critics contend is limiting their ability to understand new products brought before them for regulatory review. Limiting that exchange of information even further could exacerbate problems, argued ACM.
"By keeping current with the work of their colleagues and leading developments in their field(s), these employees are performing tasks that are central (and often essential) to the effective performance of their jobs," ACM explained. "Attending these events allows for opportunities to interact with collaborators, identify potential future employees, and obtain advanced training." Without such interactions, the argument goes, FDA may also find itself struggling to recruit new talent to replace outgoing or retiring workers.
Their concerns at the time of the OMB directive were more hypothetical. Now, reports The New York Times, they're becoming realized in alarming ways. The Department of Energy-and agency not unlike FDA-is sending nearly 30% fewer employees to the industry's main trade show and will not maintain any physical presence there unlike years past.
Ultimately, critics say their concerns come down to a simple question: Restrictions are expected to save over a billion dollars-but at what cost?