November 14, 2012, 11:43 AM — SALT LAKE CITY, Utah -- A school-yard lesson about the consequences of bad behavior is weighing heavily at this year's supercomputing conference here.
Earlier this year, the White House ordered major cutbacks in travel spending by government agencies following revelations that the General Services Administration spent more than $820,000 on a conference in Las Vegas attended by about 300 people.
That GSA conference, which took place in 2010, included things like a $44 per-person daily breakfast, semi-private, catered in-room parties, and a closing reception that cost about $95 per person.
Thanks to those excesses by the GSA, everyone in the U.S. government is being forced to cut back on travel -- and that's affected the International Conference for High Performance Computing, Networking Storage and Analysis, otherwise known as SC12. Attendance is down from last year, and there's a visible absence of the big national laboratories from the trade show floor.
"If this is the beginning of a new norm, this is a serious problem for science, because science can be conducted in many ways," said Jeffrey Hollingsworth, a professor of computer science at the University of Maryland and this year's general chair of the conference.
"If you want to get that inspiration that is going to lead to the next discovery, we need physical conferences," said Hollingsworth, who believes face-to-face meetings are important for generating ideas. SC12 is far from lavish. Many of the attendees work in research labs, universities or are students. They stay, often enough, in budget hotels.
A longstanding hallmark of the technical conference has been the large booths assembled by federal research labs such as Argonne National Laboratory, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and other U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) labs. But this year, displays showing computer simulations of those labs' research are missing.
Although the total number of exhibitors has increased to 334, the largest ever, the federal government's presence is greatly diminished.
Attendance by federal researchers has been hurt as well, although it is uncertain by how much. There are about 9,500 attendees, in contrast to the more than 11,000 who showed up last year.
Some of that decline is due to federal cutbacks. DOE, for example, sent 100 people this, compared to 150 who were at last year's conference.