Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Nobody In Edinburgh?

[Old Bus on the Isle of Hoy, Scotland. Photo by Martin Bay].

Time to spruce up the old bangers, maybe? We're economizing on travel!

 I'll be giving a resounding  Plenary Lecture at the International Conference on Neutron Scattering in Edinburgh in July. However, it now appears that very few colleagues from the USA will be there to witness this edifying spectacle.  You see, we are now seeing the effect of The New Travel Restrictions. Indeed, the Energy Department Inspector General's report notes that in the last six years  over 90,000 contractor employee foreign travel trips occurred with a cost to the government of just over $300 million.  That's quite a lot of dough! 

Now, don't get me wrong, I am strongly in favor of reducing unnecessary government expenditure, but things need to be thought through, or unintended consequences shape the end result.  In the case of scientists, many lay-people don't realize that talking with other scientists about your work and learning about other scientists' work in person are absolutely critical to making key discoveries. If scientists don't go to foreign conferences then they don't get to talk with people from other countries  about projects, and, moreover, they don't get to publicize their work. So the result is less well-informed, less motivated scientists doing poor-quality work that no-one else in the world pays much attention to. This reduces significantly the value of funds invested in the research in the first place. To put it another way, we may well spend $3bn on the Spallation Neutron Source, but  if we then try to crimp a few thousand dollars by stopping people going to the world's premier neutron conference future work at SNS will be of lower quality and the worldwide standing of the USA in the neutron sciences will be significantly diminished. 

Here's an alternative suggestion. It seems to me that, unless my maths is really, really bad, the figures above equate to about $3300 per person per trip.  How about simply putting a cap on foreign travel of, say, $2800 per trip? People can get to most places for a $1500 airfare and $200 per day for the hotel and registration. They might have to work a bit online to bring costs down, but that's the point, isn't it?  Better still, if we were to allow lots of  our IT researchers to go to foreign conferences about high-performance computing then, sitting down over a few beers with their German, Chinese and Japanese counterparts, they might just figure out a way  to make videoconferencing really fast and high quality, thus obviating the need for any foreign conference travel at all.  And don't worry, for quite  a while alcohol has not been reimbursable!


  1. I really don't want to be a member of the grammar police, but do you own a spell/grammar checker or even read your own sentences before posting? The phrase "we then tries to crimp ..." maybe should be "we then try to save ...". This also is a run-on sentence. Also, what is "maths"?

    A former ORNL staff member.

  2. No, I don't read through my own sentences much before posting, unless they're for publication in a scientific journal, and nor do I spell check. I don't really have time to do that. Thanks for pointing out the crimped error, though, which is now corrected. As for "maths", well, that's the way we Brits say it, so in the interests of diversity so it shall remain.