In the last 50 years, a score of them from the Department of Commerce and Department of Energy laboratories have received the Nobel Prize. More often than not, they collaborated with scientists from universities and industry. And in many cases, discussions they had with colleagues at scientific meetings inspired their work. The new rules will surely stifle such discussions and will cost our nation dearly far into the future.
The new rules will also erect barriers between federal program managers and the nation’s research community, preventing policymakers from staying current with cutting-edge science and preventing them from making the wisest decisions.
Even at a time when every federal dollar spent must be a dollar well spent, the travel restrictions on laboratory employees make only marginal sense. Simply to administer the program, Department of Energy sources estimate the agency is spending more than $5 million per year. And the savings it is achieving are barely that.
The budgetary travel cap may appear alluring to the elected stewards of a nation mired in debt, but its consequences could destroy the path that can lead us to renewed prosperity. In the short term, Congress can score a few political points by passing legislation that codifies the OMB rules. But in the long term, it will impede American innovation and competitiveness as the rest of the world passes us by.
With the 2012 elections behind us, the House and Senate should reject the temptation to enact the restrictive language contained in S 1789 and HR 4631, or at least provide waivers for laboratory scientists.
Michael S. Lubell is a professor of physics at the City College of the City University of New York and director of public affairs of the American Physical Society.