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Travel restrictions stifle defense scientific collaboration

Sep. 29, 2013 - 02:33PM   |  

Since 1946, defense and NASA propulsion scientists have met and collaborated. They’ve enabled NASA’s reuse of deactivated Air Force missiles, set standards for missile tests and advanced propellants less vulnerable to improvised explosives.

Normally, 150 defense scientists attend the Joint Army-Navy-NASA-Air Force (JANNAF) Propulsion meeting.

This year, federal travel was restricted and government attendance fell at such scientific meetings. Now, many realize travel restrictions hurt scientific collaboration. In May, the Office of Management and Budget called for “balance” regarding scientists’ travel. However, little has changed in defense and other agencies.

“As a scientist, I know firsthand how important scientific conferences and meetings are,” U.S. Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., said. “The informal conversations, as well as the formal presentations and poster sessions that go into a conference among scientists from different institutions, lead to new collaborations that have the promise of new discoveries.”

Over sandwiches at a 1972 conference, Stanford’s Stanley Cohen and University of California’s Herbert Boyer laid groundwork for gene therapy and biotech industry.

Scientific meetings benefit defense. They map the way for war-fighting technologies. Army labs developed and integrated critical technologies into the M1 tank and Apache helicopters, collaborating with industry. Such meetings help avoid missteps.

The JASON defense science advisory panel has often advised against unworkable technologies, saving billions. And collaborative meetings have enabled solutions for countering IEDs, communicating over Afghan mountains and renewable power for war fighters.

“The world’s really smart people aren’t members of any single team but are distributed all over the place,” said John Seely Brown, once head of Xerox’s research center. And collocation enables collaboration.

“Being in the same room significantly increases the incidence of collaboration,” stated a 2012 Harvard Business School study. “The Formation of Scientific Collaborations.” It estimates the “probability of collaboration between pairs of researchers increasing by 75 percent.”

Scientists are frugal, too.

“They would rather attend a meeting in Manhattan, Kan., than Manhattan in the Big Apple — just to save a few bucks,” wrote a physicist. After the American Physical Society’s 1986 Las Vegas conference, a local newspaper reported, “Physicists in Town, Lowest Casino Take Ever.”

But in 2010, the Government Services Administration spent $822,000 on a 300-person Las Vegas conference. The Office of Management and Budget directed all federal travel cut by 30 percent and limited conferences.

Some agencies were stricter than others. One defense organization directed that only generals and the Senior Executive Service authorize travel and conferences. Even then, some travel was prohibited.

Government scientists’ travel was cut, too. As defined by Federal Travel Regulations, said one OMB official, government scientists meeting with private-sector counterparts on critical research is a conference — deemed by some as not mission-essential. Consequently, government scientists’ collaboration declined in meetings on AIDS, Antarctica and supercomputing, and caused cancellation of a classified munitions conference.

Ironically, scientific collaboration is restricted when it needs expansion.

“I encourage agencies with Federal laboratories to collaborate, consistent with their missions and authorities, with external partners,” said a 2011 presidential memo, “Accelerating Technology Transfer and Commercialization of Federal Research in Support of High-Growth Businesses.”

Also, “unprecedented collaboration” is needed for complex problems, states a 2013 American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ report, “Unleashing America’s Research & Innovation Enterprise.”

Many warn of the consequences.

“Restricting attendance of U.S. government scientists and program managers to scientific conferences damages progress in two ways,” Google Vice President Vint Cerf said. “The program managers are not up to date on the latest technology and technical discoveries and the researchers do not benefit from knowing more about what the program managers are looking for.”

In an August memo, the White House Director of Office of Science and Technology Policy stated, “Dramatic reductions in the ability of Federal scientists and engineers to travel and to attend scientific and technical conferences will, if continued, encourage the best scientists and engineers to leave Federal service.”

Heads of American Chemical and American Physical Societies tackled the subject in an oped in The Hill, “Federal travel restrictions will hamper innovation, stunt economic growth.”

In May, more than 60 science associations petitioned Congress for travel that “promotes agency interests as well as the professional development and competency of government scientists.”

However, in defense and other agencies little has changed, but it should. Scientists need collaboration to do their job.

Robert Kavetsky, a retired DoD engineer, is president of the Energetics Technology Center; Thomas Linn, a retired U.S. Marine, is a science writer.

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