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):
EC. 1121. LIMITATION ON FUNDING FOR CONFERENCES.
(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.