ASTMH Blog

Goraleski: Science Must Trump Politics

November 15, 2012 · No Comments

Just weeks ahead of ASTMH's annual meeting, the Obama administration issued a directive limiting the amount of money government agencies could spend on conferences and meetings. While the new guidelines were created with good intentions, it soon became clear that they would affect government researchers' participation in scientific conferences -- including ASTMH's 2012 meeting.

The Society addressed the policy's detrimental restrictions in a letter to the editor published in the New York Times and in a commentary that appeared in the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call authored by ASTMH members Alan Magill and Stephen Hoffman.

Now Karen Goraleski, ASTMH's executive director, explains how the cuts affected the 61st annual meeting, which wrapped up today in Atlanta.

How did the DoD travel budget cuts affect this year's meeting?

The cuts have been unfortunate in multiple ways. ASTMH's meeting presents scientists and researchers across public and private sectors with an opportunity to share their knowledge, continue their collaborations with colleagues from around the world and pursue advancements that will affect so many people globally. Several scientists could not attend the meeting this year because of these cuts. We're still finalizing our numbers, but we believe that up to 200 of our Army and Navy researchers were prevented from attending this meeting -- including  Stephen Thomas, the dengue vaccine researcher from Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, who was supposed to present research at the meeting. Not only did we miss our colleagues this year, but their empty chairs were hard to ignore.

It's worth noting that while we saw deep cuts out of the defense department, other federal health agencies, including NIH and CDC, were also affected. At one stage, we thought essential colleagues at the CDC wouldn't be able to attend the meeting. At the 11th hour, CDC employees received HHS approval to attend and participate in the annual meeting. We're very glad that worked out -- the CDC plays a valuable and unique role in tropical medicine and global health -- without these colleagues, we would have been faced with a very serious reduction of scientific important content.

While the thinking behind the travel ban was well intentioned, the execution has brought unintended consequences that have negatively impacted science and the global health community.

How does the Society plan to address this issue in the future?

This is a policy that has to change. It is not beneficial to the scientists  themselves, and it has problematic consequences for the larger community and the health of the very people we're trying to help -- including our military personnel both here and overseas. Travel and participation in an international scientific conference -- like ASTMH's meeting -- is not a perk. It is not a golf outing, and it is not an extended vacation.

ASTMH has been a long-standing research partner with the military. We very much want to continue that research and want to continue to help the military meet its goals of soldier health and mission readiness. 

Going forward, the Society stands ready to work with the Secretaries of the Army, Navy and Air Force to develop policies that advance our collective priorities.

What should members of the Society and the global health community at large take away from this situation? What should they do going forward?

Diseases and conditions that were once considered exotic are today a plane ride away. Our members know this only too well. Information and infection can travel around the world in less than 24 hours. We benefit tremendously from the world wide influx of ideas, energy, creativity. At a time when the country is so focused on fiscal concerns -- like what we saw with this travel directive -- we have to continue to take a long view. The country is domestically focused right now, but that is very short-sighted because America's health is global health. The U.S. is a huge driver of research and development in global health and tropical medicine. Everyone benefits from this research -- whether directly or indirectly. As members of Congress make their funding priotrities, we have to remind them that reducing funds for tropical medicine / global health is short-sighted and will ultimately be more expensive. Science must trump politics.

ASTMH members and science advocates need to contact their elected officials and help them better understand why this research is important and why it matters to everyday people. The science community must speak up about the multiple benefits of their research, including national security and the strengthening of diplomatic relationships in countries around the world.

Science has always been a bridge to building relationships. In many ways, researchers are our diplomats around the world. With the annual meeting next year in Washington, D.C., we'll be looking forward to discussing these issues further.

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