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12 April 2013

Scientific conferences promote advances that grow the economy, save money, and improve lives

In order for research to become useful, researchers and developers from academia, industry and government have to share their needs and ideas. Everyone in the field knows that. Most people would agree that much of the value and action-steps come from hallway conversations among presenters and attendees.

And nearly everyone in the field has a great deal of apprehension about the serious threat to global technology leadership and economic viability wrought by current U.S. restrictions on travel by government employees.

In the photonics sector, this includes the scientists and engineers at NASA, NIST, NIH, DOD, DOE, NSF, NOAA, and several other agencies.

Rep. Rush Holt is one of a very few
professional scientists serving in the
U.S. Congress. (Photo: Kate Bohler,
Asia Society/Flickr)
Scientist and U.S. Congressman Rush Holt of New Jersey, formerly the assistant director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab (and the man who beat “Watson,” IBM’s computer system in a simulated round of “Jeopardy” in 2011) told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in February how he views scientific conferences.

"I know firsthand how important scientific conferences and meetings are. 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. These are not fancy junkets.

"Many of the insights that have driven our understanding of science forward in recent years have been possible only through the collaboration of dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of scientists scattered across the globe … many insights are possible only because of close, personal interactions among scientists who see each regularly: those who do not work at the same university or laboratory must rely on interacting with each other at conferences."

In optics and photonics alone, these insights are responsible for night vision and laser targeting, cures for disease, broadband communications, sustainable energy generation, cyber security for business and law enforcement, more effective surgical techniques, and much more.

And these insights are the fuel that drives technology innovation, creating new business opportunities and ensuring leadership in the global economy.

Holt is not alone in bringing this message to Congress and lobbying for adjustment to the regulations. Scientific and engineering societies such as SPIE are taking action as well.

Robert Lieberman, chair of the SPIE committee on Engineering Science, and Technology Policy, and Eugene Arthurs, SPIE CEO, have written to influential Members of Congress and the OSTP with a similar message, and SPIE President William Arnold and Arthurs have contacted society constituents who are working in government with a message of support.

"While SPIE recognizes the importance of reining in wasteful spending and improving governmental accountability, these new restrictions are extreme in their efforts to limit federal employees' participation in the scientific process,” Lieberman wrote to Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland. Mikulski is chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, and Science and a member of several appropriations and other committees. “These regulations will have long-term repercussions for the ability of scientists to exchange information and for the economic recovery of this nation."

As Arnold’s and Arthurs’ letter to constituents pointed out, the impact of the regulations is heightened by federal budget cuts mandated by sequestration.

A move by SPIE of its Defense, Security, and Sensing from Orlando, Florida, to Baltimore, Maryland, was prompted in part by recognition that federal agencies need to control costs.

Congressional Visits Day gave voluntees from the photonics
community a chance to talk with Members of Congress
about community concerns -- including the ability for
government scientists, researchers, and engineers to meet
in person with colleagues at conferences. (SPIE photo)
SPIE sponsored volunteers who were among approximately 200 from around the country at the recent Science-Engineering-Technology Congressional Visits Day. They asked for revision of regulations in order to support travel of government employees to scienfic conferences. (They also urged support for the National Photonics Initiative (NPI), to foster increased collaboration and coordination between industry, government, and academia to identify and advance areas of photonics that are critical for maintaining U.S. competitiveness and national security.)

You can help, too: Add your voice to those informing Congress about why scientific meetings are important to your work.

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