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Informational Email 2008-15 - NASA Conference Funding
Marcos Huerta
John Bahcall Public Policy Fellow
huerta at aas.org

HR 6063, the NASA Authorization Act of 2008, was amended and passed by the Senate by unanimous consent on September 25, and subsequently passed the house on September 27. It was signed by the president in early October. The Senate added, at the request of Senator Tom Coburn's office (R-OK), the following text:

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SEC. 1121. LIMITATION ON FUNDING FOR CONFERENCES.

(a) IN GENERAL- There are authorized to be appropriated not more than $5,000,000 for any expenses related to conferences, including conference programs, travel costs, and related expenses. No funds authorized under this Act may be used to support a Space Flight Awareness Launch Honoree Event conference. The total amount of the funds available under this Act for other Space Flight Awareness Honoree-related activities in fiscal year 2009 may not exceed 1/2 of the total amount of funds from all sources obligated or expended on such activities in fiscal year 2008.


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Following the passage of the bill, NASA HQ sent out a memo to its employees. It is excerpted below:

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Until further notice, no FY 09 funds are to be committed, obligated or disbursed to sponsor, travel to, or pay admission to an international or domestic conference. No commitments or obligations to conference facilities or hotels may be made using FY 09 funds. Conferences that are planned in the current quarter, or attendance at conferences in the current quarter, may proceed as long as only FY 08 funds are used for all participants. For example, any travelers attending the Advancement of Safety Conference this month may only use FY 08 funds for travel or fees.
 

The limitation on FY 09 funds applies to NASA's cost-reimbursable contracts, including NASA's contract with JPL. NASA may not direct contractors, subcontractors or grant recipients to attend or sponsor conferences.
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This direction is intended to be temporary, to ensure that we do not create a problem before we have time to establish new processes. NASA's Office of the Chief Financial Officer and the Office of the General Counsel will be establishing more detailed guidance and processes as well as budget allocations for organizations for conference activities'& FY 09.

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There has been some cost growth in the expenses on conferences at NASA in the last 3 years. Conversations with people within NASA on the spending on conferences has revealed that the growth in conference spending is in fact at least partially artificial - prior years did not have adequate data collection of actual costs compared to the current year, therefore creating an artificial "growth" in conference spending in the numbers presented by NASA for this budget line. Senator Coburn has, in the interest of monitoring government spending and saving taxpayer dollars, been attentive to government spending on conferences at a variety of agencies, and has put "holds" on many pieces of legislation in the 110th congress. I have met with Sen. Coburn's staff, as well as staff of the appropriate subcommittee, to discuss the importance of scientific conferences to our members.

NASA will have to detail how it plans to implement this spending cap in the next few weeks. How NASA defines a "conference" and how they implement the $5 million spending cap will determine how much impact this has on NASA scientists and administrators to attend conferences such as those of the AAS and other societies.

The Authorization bill is for only one year, and this topic will be revisited in the next NASA Authorization bill, which will be taken up in early 2009, to stay ahead of the appropriation process. The AAS will continue to monitor the impact of this section of the law, and work with both NASA and Congress to ensure that NASA meets its mission of scientific inquiry through continued engagement of the astronomical community at scientific conferences.

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