The National Security Argument for Spending More on Conferences, Travel


As the U.S. loses its science and tech superiority, the military must look elsewhere.

U.S. dominance in science and technology has traditionally fed U.S. military superiority -- a dynamic no one relies on anymore. The United States currently pays for less than one-third of global research and development, and that portion is expected to fall to 18 percent by 2050, according to sources cited in a new report from the National Research Council.

One interesting suggested response to the problem: Spend more on overseas conferences.

More broadly, the report argues the Pentagon should develop a departmentwide strategy to keep on top of international research “and to identify opportunities to leverage its research and development investments and collaborate internationally.”

Report authors laid out a continuum of approaches to becoming acquainted with international research projects, from most passive -- including data analytics and bibliometric analyses -- to more engaged and informative activities such as lab visits, conferences and actually funding projects (the most engaged approach).

The report -- which was requested by Army, Navy and Air Force research units -- notes that all branches of the military have research programs. "However, researchers at defense laboratories and research centers who wish to engage internationally face funding limitations and restrictions on travel and conference participation."

Federal spending on conferences has fallen by hundreds of millions of dollars since 2010, with stricter policies following a series of revelations about extravagant conference costs at agencies across government -- including the Internal Revenue Service, the General Services Administration, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Defense Department.

Scientists have argued for an exemption from tighter federal travel restrictions, but federal conference participation -- especially international -- is still rare compared with several years ago.

“As technologies become more sophisticated, organizations will need to employ increasingly active mechanisms to remain capable of innovating, following quickly on the innovation of others and absorbing the benefits of innovation wherever it happens,” the NRC report said.

“If the DOD does not develop a specific, clearly defined and implementable enterprisewide strategy for fully taking advantage of global science and technology, either by absorbing knowledge and talent from the international research community or collaborating, it runs the risk of losing technological competency with severe implications for economic and national security.”

(Image via michaeljung/