Monday, April 8, 2013

Skip the Cheese Crackers?

By Keith McDowell

Travel is always the first to go. Whether due to another effectiveness and efficiency purge, budget reallocations, or the current game of sequestration, travel by our nation’s scientists and engineers is always viewed as a nonessential activity and one ripe for the budget ax. And true to form, the White House Office of Management and Budget last year on 11 May 2012 produced the latest incarnation of just such a travel restriction memorandum.

Not to be outdone or ignored, the pundits have opined, national laboratory leaders have rebuked, university presidents have scolded, and STEM trade journals have reported. Take, for example, the recent article by William G. Schulz entitled The Road Less and Less Traveled published in Chemical & Engineering News on 25 March 2013.

Schulz emphasizes the “unintended and negative results” of such travel restrictions including increased bureaucracy, frustration, falling behind the curve, and the ability to attract top talent to national and government laboratories. Do we really want the C-team managing the cradle-to-grave timeline for our nuclear weapons arsenal? Or quoting Sandia National Laboratories Nancy B. Jackson, a former American Chemical Society president, from the Schulz article: “How can scientists do their work without collaborating, brainstorming, hearing other views, and finding out how similar problems are solved?”

Jackson goes on to add: “I don’t understand why Congress is so intent upon doing all they can to drag us down from the number one global position in science and engineering research. … American exceptionalism cannot overcome a lack of support for science and collaboration among scientific peers.” True indeed! Jackson eloquently states the obvious.

But what’s the real story behind travel restrictions and life as a scientist facing the uncertainties of one’s chosen career path? Is it really a path paved with such “sturm and drang?” Well, yes and no! Here are some of my personal experiences.

It was the spring of 1979 and I was scheduled to be a speaker at the annual Sanibel Conference hosted as always by the Quantum Theory Project at the University of Florida. Of course, the conference was no longer being held on Sanibel Island, but at a luxury hotel on Florida’s Palm Coast. I didn’t have any travel funds to attend the meeting, so I did what any self-respecting scientist would do. I conned my wife into believing that the meeting would be a fabulous vacation for her and our newly born son, then about eight months old. She agreed, packed our gear for a beach trip, and off we drove from Clemson, South Carolina, to the Florida coastline north of Daytona Beach. But alas, Mother Nature didn’t cooperate. It was a cold and windy week with no opportunity for sunbathing or even a walk on the beach. So much for that junket!

Of course, there were other Sanibel Conferences. I especially remember the year that I drove to the Palm Coast but stayed at a really cheap and rundown motel on the mainland about a twenty minute drive from the expensive conference hotel. The many motorcycles in the parking lot accompanied by their potbellied and leathered owners should have been a clue for me, but what the heck? It was an experience, especially the breakfast conversion at the adjoining diner over a meal of greasy eggs, burnt bacon, and congealed grits. Who could have guessed that the Hell’s Angels or their clones were interested in theoretical chemical physics?

And then there was the travel office at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) during the 1970’s and early 1980’s. Upon filing a travel request and getting it approved, one visited the travel office and received a generous travel advance, typically in the form of a fistful of $100-dollar bills. The game, of course, was to best one’s personal record for minimizing travel expenses and hence maximize one’s financial return against the guaranteed daily expense rate. And the secret: cheese crackers!

That’s right. LANL scientists were known for their ability to survive for extended periods of time on a diet consisting principally of cheese crackers and water. I’ve always wondered what the KGB personnel who inspected the luggage of LANL scientists visiting Russian nuclear sites in the Ukraine thought about those boxes filled with cheese cracker packages – not to mention custom agents at the more exotic locations where physicists typically host their conferences.

And then there was the infamous “skyjacking” memorandum of the 1980’s related to travel restrictions. Unfortunately, I no longer have the memo but it was basically a list of “do’s and don’ts” for LANL personnel travelling around the world and how to avoid being singled out for torment or torture by a skyjacker should such a skyjacking occur. Prominent on the list was a comment about travelling and eating cheese crackers or other such unusual activities that singled one out as a scientist. But, of course, my wife claimed she could always immediately spot a scientist or engineer and she was right.

The list also contained such items as wearing mismatched socks, reading technical journals on the airplane, engaging one’s fellow passengers in the mysteries of quantum mechanics, or discussing other technical matters related to the safety of the airplane. It was also strongly suggested that one not remind fellow passengers about life in the City of Los Alamos. At the time, laboratory employees had a lot of fun coming up with possible fake identities we could assume for the purpose of international travel.

“Surely you jest” is likely your response, but, yes, the memorandum really did exist pretty much as I’ve characterized it. And the cheese crackers? You bet! I still eat them when I travel.

Travel restrictions have always been with us during times of budgetary austerity and national security. It’s a cycle that endlessly repeats and never ends. And for each and every scientist or engineer, it’s a story that plays out in its own unique and sometimes humorous manner.

But for our nation, such shortsightedness is a prescription for failure in the game of global competitiveness. As Shirley Ann Jackson, the President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, recently said, we must “invest in serendipity, because without it, there is no vitality in the innovation ecosystem. Indeed, there is no innovation.” And that means travel to conferences by our nation’s scientists and engineers.

Or as Alivisatos, Isaacs, and Mason stated in a recent article about sequestration in The Atlantic: “This sudden halt on new starts will freeze American science in place while the rest of the world races forward, and it will knock a generation of young scientists off their stride, ultimately costing billions in missed future opportunities. New ideas, new insights, new discoveries – these are the lifeblood of science and the foundation of America’s historic culture of innovation and ingenuity.”

Should we skip the cheese crackers and stay at home? I think not.

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