Give a Rocket Scientist a Lift

By Grace Peng

Many Americans are not aware of the perilous plight of our nation's scientists. It's not just the lack of jobs or the bureaucratic red tape or the lack of funding for research not related to helping old white men stay alive and able to ... ahem. The problem is too large to fit in a single blog post.

But Sanjay's post about Angel Flight is an excellent introduction to one fixable problem: the inability of our nation's scientists to attain travel funding to meet face-to-face with other scientists.

The decline (in constant dollars) of non-health-related research funding overall, in both government and industry, means that there is much less money to attend meetings and conferences. Meetings are a really, really important way for you to keep up your professional relationships, keep abreast of developments and get research ideas.

[I don't work for NASA, but I do work with them on occasion. I am not picking on NASA because this would be true for physical scientists at just about any branch of our government.]

The problem is compounded by limits on the amount of science funding that can be used for travel imposed by Congress. Consider H.R. 6063 NASA Authorization Act (2008) (PDF):


(a) IN GENERAL- There are authorized to be appropriated not more than $5,000,000 for any expenses related to conferences, including conference programs, travel costs, and related expenses. No funds authorized under this Act may be used to support a Space Flight Awareness Launch Honoree Event conference. The total amount of the funds available under this Act for other Space Flight Awareness Honoree-related activities in fiscal year 2009 may not exceed 1/2 of the total amount of funds from all sources obligated or expended on such activities in fiscal year 2008.

Scienceblogs puts it in context. The short story is that Congress cut the budget for conference travel for all of NASA (both employees and contractors at the NASA centers) by 2/3. The funding has not recovered.

It gets even worse. Not only is there a total cap on conference travel spending, but there is also a 50 person limit on attendance at foreign meetings.*

I belong to both the American Geophysical Union and the American Meteorological Society. In the past, I used to attend the annual meeting for one or the other, depending on which one has sessions more aligned with my work and the cost/distance for travel. Lack of funding means that I have not attended meetings for either in the past couple of years, even though I did volunteer work as a session co-convener.

AGU holds two big meetings a year, the Fall meeting in San Francisco, and a Joint Assembly in May, usually on the East Coast. The Joint Assembly is supposed to bring together geoscientists from Canada, Mexico and the U.S. Geophysical issues transcend borders so it seems natural that so should the science and solutions.

If you look at the AGU meeting archive, you will see that the joint assembly alternates between north American cities. Similarly, the Western Pacific Geophysics Meeting bounces between cities on the "ring of fire."

A large number of our nation's geophysicists work for NASA because the only way to view the entire globe is from space. Space-borne experiments are complex, involving large numbers of people (though the numbers keeps shrinking with the funding). If only 50 NASA employees can attend a meetings with total attendance running into the thousands (scroll down to the bottom to see final attendance tallies), that means a whole lot of researchers were unable to attend the meeting and share their results.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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