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Obama Administration Maintains Bush-Era Travel Limits on NIH

24 April 2009 12:42 pm
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Some federal scientists who thought the Bush Administration policy limiting travel to scientific meetings would be changed got a shock this week. Staff at the National Institutes of Health campus in Bethesda, Maryland, were informed that a cap on travel to big meetings imposed under the Bush Administration by the Department of Health and Human Services, will stay in place.

In a 21 April email to staff, NIH official Kenneth Stith explains that HHS is limiting attendance at several meetings this year to 2008 levels to save money. NIH "requested [HHS] to reconsider reductions ... emphasizing the impact to science and training. However, due to the overall push to reduce costs, the decision was made to continue," the memo says. A spreadsheet obtained by ScienceInsider describes the "reductions" for 13 upcoming meetings—including the June meeting of the Endocrine Society, which is in Washington, D.C., a local trip for NIHers. Only 93 of the 178 staff who wanted to attend can go.

Recession or not, the fact that HHS is still dictating travel spending is irksome to many NIH scientists. "We should be allowed to spend our money the way we think is best," says Samuel Cushman, a 30-year NIH veteran.

Another scientist, who sent a postdoc to present a poster at the American Academy of Neurology meeting starting tomorrow in Seattle, but won't attend himself, says he is "so mad about this, it is hard to put it in words."

Even more surprising is that HHS appears to be continuing a policy first imposed in 2004 by then-HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson that allows no more than 50 scientists across the U.S. government to attend the International AIDS Society Conference, this year in Capetown, South Africa, in July. NIH can send only 30 people to that meeting and a sister meeting on HIV pathogenesis and treatment, the table states.

The cost-cutting measures come despite a recent $10.4 billion windfall for NIH, the vast majority of which will be used for university research grants and facilities construction.

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