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.

I was a co-convener for one session of the Toronto meeting. Though Toronto is closer in distance to most North American scientists, and cheaper to visit than the other contender, New York City, all but 50 NASA employees were barred from attending. That meant mostly managers attended the meeting and the people working in the trenches stayed home. But it is precisely the people who work in the trenches who need to meet face to face and share ideas and results.

Years ago, I attended an International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics in Japan. It was really exciting to share my research with counterparts from Asia and Europe and I hope to attend another one of their meetings someday.

When I look back on the meeting, I am struck by the difference between the respect shown for science -- and scientists -- and the treatment here. Families all over Sapporo gave room and board to scientists who otherwise could not afford to attend. The emperor held a special reception and gave a talk about the importance of geophysics to Japan. (Has a U.S. president or even a governor ever addressed an AGU meeting?) In one shop, the proprietress saw my meeting badge and wouldn't accept my money. She made the object I was admiring a present instead.

The money to send a few thousand scientists to a meeting is small potatoes for our large nation. Compare that to the money spent on annual corporate retreats, even by companies that required public bailouts costing in the billions.

While we are awaiting a government solution, may I suggest that we band together for a private solution?

  • If you run an airline, can you set up a program so that people can donate their frequent flier miles to help scientists attend science meetings? You already do this for sick kids and their families. (We will find some photogenic scientists to use in your advertising.)
  • If you have frequent flier miles that are about to expire, donate them to a rocket scientist or two!
  • If you live in a meeting city, volunteer to let a scientist couch-surf.
  • Sanjay, can you mobilize Angel Flight to lend a helping hand?

*Due to budget cutbacks, a large number of people, including the majority of scientists under the age of 50, are short-term contractors instead of NASA employees. The 50-person limit for the Toronto meeting made it extremely difficult to fill our session. Many people said that they didn't submit anything because they wouldn't be able to attend, though they would have liked to. Others had to retract their submissions once their management determined that Toronto is foreign. One manager determined that, while he couldn't send a NASA employee, two of the people on that project were contractors and didn't count toward the 50-person limit. That's one upside to living on year-to-year contracts, I guess.

Grace Peng has a day job at the intersection of science, technology and governance/policy. She also does a split shift at home as a mother and wife to a field scientist. She blogs about science, the culture of making, and work/life issues at Bad Mom, Good Mom.