Federal scientists crying foul over DATA Act's conference restrictions

Monday - 1/20/2014, 3:27pm EST

Florence Haseltine, president, Assembly of Scientists

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A group of federal scientists is concerned that proposed restrictions on federal employees attending conferences could put scientific research behind the curve.

The Assembly of Scientists wrote to the two top senators on the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee last week, arguing that the Digital Accountability and Transparency (DATA) Act would likely lead to a "decline in the productivity, creativity, morale, recruitment and retention" of many of the government's top scientists.

The DATA Act has already passed the House and is now being considered by the Senate.

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The bill requires agencies to make conference records publicly available, including all conference costs exceeding $10,000 for which the agency paid employees' traveling expenses. The reports must include an itemized list of expenses paid by the agency, the sponsor of the conference as well as a brief explanation of how an employee's attendance advanced the agency's mission.

The bill also also requires federal agencies to publicly post on their websites detailed information on any presentations made by employees at the conferences they attend.

That last provision is likely to cause headaches for federal scientists, according to Florence Haseltine, the assembly's president, who recently retired from the National Institutes of Health.

Often, research presented at conferences is only preliminary, Haseltine said, such as a study on a potential drug treatment. Publishing that research prematurely could give the public a misleading or incomplete account of the latest research.

Also, forcing federal scientists to publish presentation materials could also make it harder for them to have their work published in prestigious peer-reviewed journals, she said. That's because these journals generally only accept articles and research for publication that haven't been published elsewhere.

"So, it hampers our ability to get proper peer review and then authenticated results out to the public," she said in an interview on the Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp.

Scientists: Conferences are 'lifeblood'

The DATA Act is the latest legislative attempt to rein in conference spending in the wake of a handful of agency boondoggles in recent years.

The bill would limit agencies' overall conference spending over the next five years to 70 percent of what they spent on conferences in fiscal 2010.

For federal scientists, though, conferences aren't a luxury, Haseltine said. Her group's letter called them the "lifeblood" of scientific development.

"If you have an idea, you need to go and bounce it off of not just the people around you but people around your area," Haseltine said. "That could sometimes be just the U.S. or it could be scientists around the world. And you need the feedback. If you don't have feedback, you're not going to be able to do the experiments in the best way that have actual application or increase our knowledge."

Restricting conference attendance could have have far-reaching implications, she said.

"Federal scientists are a large percentage of the scientists in this country, and when you reduce their ability to present their work, you're actually restricting the flow of scientific information to the U.S. public as well as the international community," she said.

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