NASA released new rules severely limiting travel and scientific conference attendance, yesterday, in what is the first major effect of Sequestration on the agency.
A letter from NASA Administrator Charles Bolden outlined the new restrictions, which include a ban on travel outside of the continental United States, a limit of fifty NASA scientists at any given conference, and new requirements that a physical presence at the conference is necessary. Key excerpts (emphasis mine):
Criteria - NASA will limit domestic conference attendance to those conferences that meet all of the following criteria. The Office of the Chief Financial Officer (OCFO) will determine whether a conference as a whole meets these criteria:
- The conference is essential and/or necessary (as compared to discretionary or preferable)
- A scientific or technical presentation at a scientific or technical conference meets these criteria, but the other criteria must also be met.
- The conference contributes to the agency's core mission.
- The employee attending is substantively involved with the conference (moderating panels and attending-only do not meet this criteria).
- There are no alternative methods of participating (e.g., phone, video conference, or pre-recorded video message).
50 Person Limit - Assuming the criteria above are met, NASA will limit the total attendance at a domestic conference to 50 persons, including both civil service and JPL and other contractor employees, unless the conference is approved to exceed the 50 person limit by OCFO.
Foreign Conferences - Foreign conference participation and sponsorship is prohibited unless the conference as a whole is specifically approved by OCFO. As of 3/12/13, no foreign conferences are approved by OCFO. Pending a future waiver by OCFO, attendance at any foreign conference is prohibited.
Of special note is that this letter defines "foreign" travel as anything outside of the continental United States. Sorry Hawaii and Alaska!
So, why is this really bad?
Conference travel for scientists is a crucial aspect of their professions. A conference is an exchange of ideas, where scientists can get together, present results, hear new ones, and generally cross-pollinate. Serendipitous interactions between scientists can lead to unexpected collaborations. This type of intermingling is understood as a crucial component of creative endeavors, reflected in a variety of environments (for example, the layout of the Pixar company's main headquarters encourages employee interaction).
NASA will also completely pull out of foreign conferences, reducing the amount of interaction with crucial scientific communities outside the United States. This particularly effects Europe, since they are major partners on many NASA missions.
I am not upset at NASA management. This is likely the least-worst option they had to choose from. The Sequester was never meant to be implemented because the effects were supposed to be so nasty that Congress would never let it happen. So of course this decision doesn't make sense; the Sequester by definition prevents most of these cuts from making any sense. The agency is trying very hard to avoid layoffs and furloughs and cutting conference travel so severely most likely saves jobs.
Even so, there will now be a NASA-sized hole at major conferences. Fewer ideas will mix, fewer collaborations will begin, and the world will lose a little bit of the excitement and potential it once had.
It's tragic on its face, but the fact that this didn't have to happen makes it more so.
Update 2013-03-14 9:30 pm PDT
Some more info via Twitter, including the excellent point that Puerto Rico (home of the Arecibo Observatory) is considered "foreign" and thus all travel is forbidden (including for those who work at the Observatory):