NIH Scientists in a Spin Over Foreign Travel
Jocelyn Kaiser

Alternating yes-no directives have confused biomedical staff members at U.S. agencies about whether they will be permitted to attend certain international scientific meetings. The muddle arises from an effort by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to set limits on foreign travel, a move that has met resistance at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

In the past month, HHS issued last-minute orders for 34 NIH staffers to cancel plans to attend two scientific meetings in Canada. Then in mid-July, according to staffers, HHS lifted the limits on travel to another Canadian meeting. What happens next is not clear: "It's a complex situation and we're working with the department to smooth things out," says Michael Gottesman, NIH director of intramural research.

HHS's Office of Global Health Affairs (OGHA), headed by William Steiger, has been concerned about international travel costs for 2 years. NIH responded by keeping to a total annual travel budget, says an NIH official speaking on background. Last summer, HHS also issued a policy requiring agencies to list foreign meetings with more than 20 expected attendees before each fiscal year began. Then this spring, Steiger restricted the number of U.S.-based HHS staff attending the XV International AIDS Conference in Bangkok to 50 (20 from NIH)--compared with 236 at the last global AIDS gathering.

Since then, HHS has moved to cut participation at more meetings. In early June, OGHA ordered NIH to tell 13 scientists planning to attend a brain-mapping meeting in Hungary to stay home, then at the last minute allowed them to travel. Three didn't get the message in time and missed the meeting (Science, 9 July, p. 162). Then, just before a 26 to 30 June meeting of the Research Society on Alcoholism in Vancouver, OGHA told NIH to select 18 staffers to stay home out of 75 registered to go. The office then approved only 57 of 73 staff members planning to attend the American Society of Virology meeting from 10 to 14 July in Montreal. Responding to OGHA orders, NIH officials issued e-mails canceling trips 2 days before these meetings.

Some staffers who were kept home had not planned to give talks or presentations. But alcoholism researcher Daniel Hommer says, "I felt terrible" that a student of his who intended to present a poster had to stay home. NIH was anticipating another big cut before this week's International Congress of Immunology in Montreal. But in the end, Steiger's office allowed all 101 who planned to go to attend.

HHS spokesperson William Pierce-- observing that NIH scientists are "whiney" --says the cuts reflect the fact that, while it's not written down, the HHSpolicy issued last summer limits attendance at foreign meetings to 40 people, with occasional "exceptions." NIH erred, he says, by not including some of these meetings on its list last year and informing HHS "at the last minute."

The NIH official acknowledges that some meetings weren't on the list but says they had not heard of the 40-person limit. NIHspokesperson John Burklow says that HHS officials have now made clear "that 40 is about the number that should be going."