Federal Lab Travel Restrictions Hurt Us All

Earlier this week, the Industrial Research Institute (IRI) signed a letter addressed to Congress regarding administrative changes that affect the ability of Federal laboratory professionals to attend scientific and technical conferences. IRI is responding to the crisis such travel restrictions cause to the scientific and technical community and to our nation’s technological competitiveness.

In March, an OMB Memorandum outlined the impact of Executive Order 13589, “Promoting Efficient Spending,” signed November 9, 2011, which called for a 20 percent reduction in various administrative costs across the Federal Government by 2013. To achieve these savings, according to the Memorandum, “many agencies have identified and implemented creative and innovative practices to reduce costs and improve efficiencies in such areas as travel, conference expenditures, real estate, and fleet management.” While targets for cost saving have been met, other costs are being incurred.

Innovation Requires Cross-Fertilization

Peer to peer networking is a central component to the scientific process. As an association representing approximately 200 large, scientific and technical organizations, IRI hosts meetings each year that allow managers, directors, and executives of R&D at global firms to network across industries to share, and create, best practices in managing innovation. Federal labs are crucial to this networking. How private sector labs and facilities organize themselves is vastly different than how a public institution organizes, and for obvious reasons. But those differences help build on one another.

Where an aerospace executive might find value in lean R&D, she may also discover a truly remarkable organizing principle among a larger, basic research laboratory and make changes that result in tremendous innovation, or better cost savings. Likewise, with Federal labs operating in a different budgetary environment than the hyper competitive private sector, they may uncover remarkable new methods for innovating faster, leaner, and further under budget than they ever thought possible after sitting for an in-depth discussion on management practices with executives from industry-leading chemical companies in attendance at our meetings.

The very opportunity to sit and discuss what has been considered “in house” for decades unleashes an innovation potential unknown to the scientific and technical sectors of our economy. This cross-fertilization of ideas has fueled more innovation than is calculable. But the opportunity to enable this networking is severely limited when government agencies view attendance at such conferences as non-essential.

Students Need to See the Value of Working at Federal Labs

With such travel restrictions in place, students graduating with STEM degrees may also begin opting for the private sector instead of Federal labs. A significant portion of working in scientific and technical fields is the ability to network and build relationships within a given field and to further oneself within a mentoring ecosystem built, in large part, by attendance at conferences. If Federal labs begin to impose further restrictions on travel to such conferences, students will see employment within the lab system as less beneficial to their personal and professional development.

Students need to be able to view employment at a Federal lab as a valued, lifetime career or as a spring-loaded stepping stone to a high-powered career in the private sector. With these travel restrictions in place, neither is possible. Our nation’s Federal lab employees are being cut off from the rest of the scientific marketplace while the private sector is held back by a loss of deep scientific know-how and diversity. The setback is not asymmetric; both sides lose.

Impact on Competitiveness

We understand that wasteful spending in government causes harm to taxpayers and diverts work to areas that are perhaps less deserving. We also recognize that the administration may not have foreseen such detrimental travel restrictions being imposed as a result of their efforts to curb wasteful spending. However, such restrictions on travel have resulted from this effort and it is time to acknowledge that further legislative actions to cut spending may very well impose more comprehensive restrictions on conference attendance and imperil our nation’s innovation infrastructure and competitiveness.

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