No Hopping on That Jet Plane

Grounded. Many NIH researchers can't get permission to travel to scientific meetings, like this one in San Diego.

Scientists at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, are battling new regulations limiting travel to scientific meetings. Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Tommy Thompson issued the directive early this year; since then, it has only become stricter. NIH officials worry that the policy could hinder progress in biomedical research by preventing their researchers from attending vital scientific conferences.

Until recently, NIH scientists wishing to attend a scientific meeting needed clearance only from their institutes. But early this year, Thompson decreed that those wanting to attend meetings in foreign countries would need permission from his office. A few months later, the rule was extended to domestic travel. At NIH, where it applies to groups of five or larger, the policy first showed its bite in June, when HHS lopped the list of NIH participants in an alcoholism conference from 70 to 39.

NIH officials, all of whom refused to be named, said the rationale doesn't appear to be financial; rather, Thompson's office appears to be trying to curb "junkets" and doesn't appreciate the value of scientific meetings.

Scientists are now trying feverishly to overturn an HHS ruling that would allow only 550 of 761 researchers who requested permission to attend the Society for Neuroscience's annual meeting next month in San Diego. "Word keeps coming back to me that we are facing a stone wall," says one source. The wall appears to be the person of Ed Sontag, recently installed as assistant secretary for administration and management. Sontag, who has a Ph.D. in education and advised Thompson on educational matters when he was governor of Wisconsin, could not be reached for comment.

NIH officials are hoping to change Thompson's mind. In August, Michael Gottesman, NIH deputy director for intramural research, wrote to the secretary about the value of scientific meetings not just as a source of knowledge but also as a way to monitor grantees, recruit new talent, and nurture the careers of postdoctoral fellows. In the works is a visit by a contingent of institute directors. Their message will be simple, says one source: Meetings are the lifeblood of science.

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