Saturday, October 25, 2008

What's a conference?

So, by now most NASA civil servants have heard the news or at least heard rumors about the news that one of the provisions included in the NASA Authorization Act of 2008 eliminates or severely restricts all conference travel and pretty much any support for conferences from NASA. It's probably not going to end up being quite that bad, but until the lawyers figure out what exactly defines a "conference" NASA has, for now at least, put out a moratorium on using 09 funds for anything that even vaguely resembles a conference (though apparently air shows are perfectly fine).

My initial reaction to this was WTF? Why would Congress want to prevent NASA scientists from doing their job? As scientists, our job is to figure things out and then communicate our results with the rest of the community and the world, that's how science works. Yes, we publish our results in journals, but conferences are a vital part of the process. We get the opportunity for immediate feedback, we get exposed to new ideas, and find people to collaborate with.

I could not figure out what the heck Congress, or specifically, Sen. Tom Coburn who wrote this provision, was thinking until I stumbled upon this article. It talks about "NASA’s long-standing practice of honoring retirees and contractors with lavish award ceremonies costing millions of dollars a year" and it refers to these parties as "conferences". No wonder Congress is upset, I agree that that is wasteful spending, but it's not a conference. A conference is hundreds or thousands of scientists or engineers gathering together to discuss science. We don't get "gourmet food and wine receptions," we are lucky to get a mid-morning coffee break.

(BTW - who are these special retirees? In my office at NASA HQ, when someone retires we take up a collection to buy a card and maybe some cake and chips and salsa and then we gather in the conference room for an hour to wish them well.)

Anyway, I'm wondering who screwed up here, Congress for rushing this bill though and not catching this, or us, the science community for failing to properly explain what we do, how we do it, and why it's important?

Whatever happened, it's going to be a tough year for civil servant scientists, they may have to find some "symposia" or "workshops" to attend this year instead of conferences. It's going to be tough on a lot of other folks too unfortunately, most of the NASA-sponsored funds for conferences, at least in planetary sciences, went towards student travel to those conferences. I hope that denying these opportunities to students was not Senator Coburn's intention.