Society Works to Ensure Approvals for Government Employee Attendance at ENDO
By Joseph M. Laakso, PhD
Endocrine Society members include federally employed scientists and clinicians working at government facilities such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) intramural campus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Department of Veteran’s Affairs (VA). Due to efforts to increase efficiency and cost savings across the federal government, agencies have established increasingly onerous restrictions on travel for their employees to conferences such as the Endocrine Society’s annual meeting, ENDO. These restrictions have resulted in significant delays or outright refusal for approvals to participate in international scientific meetings. The Endocrine Society recognizes the value of government employee participation at ENDO, both for government employees themselves as well as attendees in general and is working with federal agencies and advocacy partners to ensure that government employees are given appropriate opportunities to attend scientific conferences.
Recently, for example, the Society submitted testimony to the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee (HSGAC), which conducted a hearing to examine the effects of recent restrictions on government employee travel. The focus of the hearing was not necessarily on those agencies that fund biomedical research, but rather on agencies such as the Department of Justice, the Internal Revenue Service, and the General Services Administration. Specifically, attendees were asked to describe their implementation of guidance by the Office of Management and Budget with the goal of reducing spending on travel and conferences. However, the Committee was extremely interested in the impact of travel and conference restrictions on the scientific community to date and how the
biomedical research community will continue to be affected if the restrictions are not modified. In its testimony to the HSGAC, the Endocrine Society strongly opposed current government policies within Executive Order 13589 and the Coburn Amendment #2060 to the Postal Service Reauthorization Bill, which severely restrict travel by federal employees to scientific conferences such as ENDO.
The Society’s testimony described the challenges that government scientists face as a result of the new restrictions. For instance, the NIH has reduced its travel budget by requiring that intramural Principal Investigators (PIs) participate in a high-profile function, typically interpreted as delivering an invited lecture, as a condition for attending an external conference. Because speakers at ENDO generally are not permitted to deliver invited lectures in consecutive years, government PIs may not able to attend ENDO each year. This policy not only disadvantages government scientists, but it also negatively impacts the value of ENDO attendance for the broader extramural research community. Program Officers, for example, provide valuable advice on applying for grants; trainees network with government scientists and gather information to make an informed decision on whether or not to join a government lab. All participants learn and exchange information at poster sessions.
In contrast, the VA is piloting a new program to improve the approvals process for Veterans Health Administration employees, potentially impacting clinicians and scientists who attend ENDO. As part of the new program, the VA posted a list of conferences for which the anticipated costs to the agency could exceed $100,000; ENDO was not on the list. For these conferences, an appointed “Executive Champion” would work with an Employee Education System Program Manager to manage the requests and approvals for attendance.
The Endocrine Society consequently reached out to the VA to seek clarification on whether VA employee attendance at ENDO would be impacted by the new policy. Staff at the VA indicated that they were dealing with backlogs in identifying an Executive Champion and determining the anticipated costs to the VA for conference attendance at ENDO. The VA was uncertain about the status of approvals for ENDO attendance. To assist the VA in anticipating the total cost of conference attendance, Society staff shared data on the number of VA attendees at ENDO in previous years. The Society hopes these data will demonstrate that ENDO will not require the increased scrutiny outlined in the new policy or demonstrate that ENDO will require prioritization in efforts to comply with the new policies.
The Endocrine Society recognizes the difficulties faced by government agencies in achieving cost savings in the challenging financial environment. However, the Society consistently expresses strong concern that onerous restrictions on travel are creating excessive challenges for government scientists and clinicians and also resulting in inefficiencies that negatively impact the entire biomedical research enterprise. The Society has shared with policy makers its concerns that these restrictions, if continued, could ultimately delay the development of new or improved therapies for patients. The Society will continue to assist government agencies as they struggle with policies on conference travel. Additionally, the Society will work to raise awareness about the value of government attendance at conferences, including ENDO.