Thursday, 31 July 2014 00:00

ASCB Rescues Federal Scientists from Capitol Hill Sausage Grinder

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sausageIn Congress and in wieners, someone has
to check to see what’s beneath the skin.
Photo by Selbe B
Making sausage and making legislation are not spectator sports but someone has to keep an eye on what's going into the mix. A case in point is the release by the Senate Appropriations Committee last Friday of its version of the bill that will fund the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education for FY15. At first glance, the bill looks like typical Capitol Hill sausage. But look closer. Tucked deep inside the bill are changes that, if they become law, will help NIH scientists attend scientific meetings and reverse a case of unintended consequences. What you are looking at is a big victory for science, for researchers, and for ASCB. Humanity may also benefit.

The bill reverses backlash legislation rushed through the Congress following a wave of media revelations about the alleged misuse of federal funds, especially for lavish employee conferences held by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the General Services Administration. In response, the Congress issued sweeping restrictions on federal travel that, among other things, made it extremely difficult for federal scientists to attend scientific conferences, including the ASCB Annual Meeting. At first, no one grasped how travel restrictions aimed at the IRS would impact federal research science.

Last fall, the ASCB heard about the trouble from Society members at the NIH who said that the new restrictions were making it next to impossible to get approval for travel to any outside science meeting much beyond walking distance. There can be high drama on the floor and in the backrooms of Congress but this struck ASCB's public policy staff as an issue best tackled quietly and behind the scenes. ASCB policy staff worked with leadership of the Senate Labor, HHS, and Education Appropriations Subcommittee to find a solution. When the ASCB leadership went to Capitol Hill in June, they raised the issue during meetings with members of Congress and their staffs.

So last Friday when the Senate Appropriations Committee reported out its version of the funding bill for Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education for FY15, it incorporated many of the travel policy changes that ASCB had quietly suggested. In particular, the travel budget for the NIH will be separate from other parts of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and should give the NIH a more realistic travel account. Also, employee travel to scientific meetings will be tallied apart from all other travel at the NIH, and travel requests will be approved at the NIH and not at the main HHS office. This last change should significantly reduce the approval time, which is currently estimated to be as long as six months. In addition, regulations that allow only 50 employees from an individual agency to travel to the same meeting will not apply to scientific conferences.

Sausage-making still remains the Other Great National Pastime inside the Washington beltway but with ASCB checking what's inside the bun, many federal scientists can relax and enjoy the mustard this summer.

Kevin M. Wilson

Kevin is the Public Policy Director for American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB). Before joining the ASCB, Kevin served as Legislative Director for Congressman Bob Weygand (D-RI). Before joining Congressman Weygand's staff, Kevin worked for Senator Claiborne Pell (D-RI). Kevin is a graduate of the Catholic University of America.

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