Update: Conference Travel Restrictions and Academic Regulatory Reform

Share This

Share/Save
Publication date: 
14 October 2015
Number: 
133

The science and academic communities have expressed concerns about restrictions put in place in recent years on federal scientists attending conferences and the increase in regulations regarding academic research, as they affect the conduct of research and development. Two recent developments are of note:

Conference Travel Restrictions on Federal Scientists:

In early October, Congress passed and sent to President Obama the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2016, a major bill passed annually authorizing the programs of the Department of Defense.  The White House has threatened to veto the bill, but President Obama has not taken action one way or another. 

Accompanying the bill is a 1,915-page conference report with a section on PDF page 1410 under “Reports and Other Matters:”  Of note, the report acknowledges “conference attendance approval policies are undermining and eroding the science and technology missions of both departments as well as the ability of personnel to engage in cutting-edge research, development, testing, and evaluation.” The section calls on the Department of Defense and National Nuclear Security Administration to revise conference attendance policies to ensure that federal scientists under their purview are given the opportunity to attend science and technology conferences. The report also recommends that laboratory and test center directors be given the authority to approve conference attendance.

The full excerpt from the report section follows:

“Expedited approval for attendance at conferences in support of science and innovation activities of Department of Defense and the National Nuclear Security Administration

The [House and Senate] conferees note with concern that since the Departments of Defense and Energy have implemented updated conference policies, in response to requirements from the Office of Management and Budget, attendance at science and technology conferences by department personnel has reduced dramatically.  According to a report from the Government Accountability Office in March 2015, conference attendance from the Army Research Laboratory declined from about 1300 attendees in 2011 to about 100 attendees in 2013. A similar drop in attendance was reported from Sandia National Laboratories. The report highlights that such a drop in attendance risks a decline in the quality of scientific research, difficulty in recruiting and retaining qualified scientists and engineers, and a diminished leadership role for the two departments within the global science and technology community. The report also notes that the new departmental policies are not meeting the needs of personnel requesting approval to travel to conferences.

Given the importance of conference attendance for an active exchange of scientific information and for recruiting and retaining high-quality technical talent, and therefore maintaining technological superiority, the conferees are concerned that the conference attendance approval policies are undermining and eroding the science and technology missions of both departments as well as the ability of personnel to engage in cutting-edge research, development, testing, and evaluation.  The conferees believe that technical conference participation is especially important to keep program managers aware of new trends in technology, so that they may make better informed decisions on behalf of taxpayers.

To maintain global technology awareness and to support retention of technical staff, the conferees believe that the Departments should strive to follow the best practices of the innovative private and academic institutions in developing management and oversight practices for conference participation.  The conferees are concerned that in specific technical fields of interest to defense, such as hypersonics and cybersecurity, the lack of participation in conferences is ceding U.S. leadership to competitor nations.

In response to these findings and concerns, the conferees direct the Secretaries of Defense and Energy to revise current policies within the Department of Defense and National Nuclear Security Administration, respectively, whereby requests for scientific conference attendance are adjudicated within one month, and approvals are granted as appropriate within one month. Further, the conferees direct the Secretaries of Defense and Energy to ensure that any decisions to disapprove conference attendance through these revised policies are made if and only if the appropriate officials determine that the disapproval would have a net positive impact on research and development and on program management quality, and not simply default disapprovals necessitated by a bureaucratic inability to make a timely decision. In addition, the conferees direct that these new policies be implemented no later than 90 days after the enactment of this act.

The conferees recommend that, through these revised policies, laboratory and test center directors be given the authority to approve conference attendance, provided that the attendance would meet the mission of the laboratory or test center and that sufficient laboratory or test center funds are available.

The conferees direct the Secretaries of Defense and Energy each to report to the Senate Armed Services Committee and the House Armed Services Committee on the revised policies from their respective agencies, as well as an assessment of their benefits and drawbacks, along with measures for tracking the effectiveness of the new policies. The conferees further direct that this report be submitted no later than one year after the enactment of this act.

Earlier in the report on PDF page 1407 in a section titled “Sense of Congress regarding facilitation of a high quality technical workforce” the conference report states “Robust participation in scientific and technical conferences, including industry and international conferences, will strengthen the national security scientific and technical workforce.”

 

Regulations Regarding Academic Research:

On September 22, the National Academies released a prepublication version of a 130-page report titled “Optimizing the Nation’s Investment in Academic Research, a New Regulatory Framework for the 21st Century.”  The report was authored by a seventeen member multidisciplinary committee chaired by Larry Faulkner, President Emeritus, The University of Texas at Austin, convened by the Board on Higher Education and Workforce. 

The report’s Preface states:

“The United States maintains a research enterprise that is world renowned for its productivity, innovation, and dynamism. Forged during World War II, a collaboration between the federal government as funder and academic research institutions as hubs of discovery and invention created an enduring partnership. Trust and respectful gratitude bound the parties together in generating new discoveries and educating and training new scientists.

“That partnership exists to this day, though recent decades have witnessed stress on the bond between the government and academic research institutions. The institutions, their faculties, and their staffs are now committing unprecedented time and resources to meeting a flow of new regulations and process requirements generated by the federal funding agencies. Though well-intended and undoubtedly appropriate, federal oversight and its accompanying burdens raise significant questions about whether the nation is optimizing its investment in our extraordinary research enterprise. This is the time to address and fully restore the foundation of our research enterprise partnership.”

The report, requested by Congress, consists of seven chapters accompanied by several appendixes.  Topics include regulations pertaining to “the acquisition and use of federal research grants,” the conduct of research, financial management, and an overarching chapter titled “A New Regulatory Framework for the Nation’s Investment in Academic Research.”

The authors explain that this report was prepared under a tight time constraint:

“Although the study was originally planned for 18 months, 3 months after the committee’s first meeting, Senator Lamar Alexander, Chair, Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, asked the committee to deliver an expedited report by summer’s end, 2015. As he explained in his remarks at the committee’s July 2015 meeting, Senator Alexander believes that fall 2015 presents a unique opportunity to reconsider, in a bipartisan manner, the regulatory environment governing federally funded research, as Congress will be considering several legislative actions involving higher education, research policy, and medical innovation where it would be appropriate to make changes to the current regulatory structure.”

The committee has not concluded its work.  Looking ahead, the report explains:

“Following the release of this expedited report, the committee will continue its assessment, seek additional data regarding the effects of regulations on the conduct of research, hold additional meetings (including a regional meeting at Rice University), issue a spring 2016 addendum report addressing outstanding items from its charge not captured in the current report (e.g., assess a subset of regulations against the new proposed framework and identify regulations needing further analysis), and address other regulations (e.g., export controls and dual use research of concern) that it has been unable to address comprehensively under the expedited time line.”