DOI Restricts Scientists From Attending Scientific Conferences

What happened: The Department of Interior (DOI) and two agencies under the DOI have carried out policies that block or restrain federal scientists from attending or presenting at scientific conferences.

Why it matters: Restricting scientists from conferences also restricts their ability to communicate novel findings that could be crucial to solving pressing issues. High quality research often results from rich collaborations between scientists, and conferences are the primary vehicle for these opportunities to occur. By barring federal scientists from attending conferences, research progress and effectiveness is ultimately hindered, preventing federal agencies from fulfilling their science-based missions.

In May 2018, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) stopped at least 14 archaeologists from attending the largest scientific conference in their field, the Society for American Archaeology, leading to the cancellation of a symposium at the conference. Additionally, in December 2017, the DOI issued a policy to cap the number of federal scientists at the US Geological Survey (USGS) from attending the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU). This policy resulted in a 60% drop in USGS scientists attending the conference. USGS also has started requiring that scientists submit their presentation titles for review before attending professional meetings. The agencies claim that fewer scientists are attending these conferences due to budgetary reasons, but the evidence suggests that the scale and scope of these cuts is unprecedented and follows a pattern at DOI of increased censorship of federal scientists, as shown here, here, here, and here.

BLM archaeologists have been regularly attending and presenting at the Society for American Archaeology since 1966. Three BLM archaeologists were granted permission to attend this year’s meeting, but the attendance of 14 other BLM archaeologists who were scheduled to present at the conference was restricted. This ultimately led to the cancellation of a symposium entitled “Tough Issues in Land Management Archaeology”. The Society for American Archaeology expressed their disappointment that the government archaeologists were denied permission to attend saying, “BLM archaeologists handle large-scale, complex issues involving multiple stakeholders, and we were sorry to lose the chance to learn from their experience”.

USGS scientists also were restricted from attending the annual meeting of the AGU. The AGU annual meeting is the largest gathering of scientists working on Earth, space and climate research in the world. Just weeks before the 2017 AGU conference, DOI capped attendance at this meeting to 199 USGS scientists, which resulted in a 60% drop of USGS scientists attending in 2017 (178 scientists) as compared to 2016 (450 scientists). Relative to other federal agencies the number of scientists attending from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) were about the same, and there was a 13% drop in NASA scientists attending from 2016 to 2017. Thirty abstracts for poster or oral presentations had to be withdrawn because USGS scientists were unable to go – one scientist was even denied approval just 10 days before the conference. A DOI spokesperson has said that there will be “no rigid cap” on attendance at the upcoming AGU conference in December 2018. USGS is requiring scientists to fill out a detailed “attendee justification” form for the 2018 annual meeting of AGU. The guidelines state that presentation titles will be reviewed to determine if a project advances the department’s political priorities. Review of scientific work should be based on the intellectual merit of the research, not whether or not it conforms to a political agenda.

The DOI is not the only department to have carried out such policies, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) have also barred scientists from attending important conferences in their field. Scientists use conferences to engage with and learn from other scientists, policy makers, and the public, which in turns allows the scientists to keep up-to-date on the latest research in their field. Without such collaboration, scientists are unable to network, find funding opportunities, or increase awareness of novel research findings. Federal agencies with scientific-based missions are ultimately doing a disservice to the scientific community by not permitting their scientists to attend these important conferences and spark fruitful research collaborations that often results in higher quality research. These unprecedented restrictions send federal scientists a chilling message: your work is not appreciated.

Last Revised Date: 

July 10, 2018