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Why gov labs presenting HPC tech ≠ officials wolfing overpriced sushi

US gov travel caps: Agency bods may have to skip supercomputing shows

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HPC blog Our buddy Rich Brueckner over at insideHPC broke some news this week when he published a story about new conference and travel spending restrictions that might radically scale back US government agency participation in HPC industry events like the upcoming SC12 conference in Salt Lake City this November.

The new strictures are almost certainly due to adverse publicity and bureaucratic fallout from the 2010 Las Vegas junket enjoyed by employees of the GSA (US General Services Administration).

The $822,000 spent on that Las Vegas convention has been dubbed "lavish", "outrageous", and "completely over the top" by news reports, politicians, and pundits.

Of course, when you’re talking about 300 career bureaucrats looking to celebrate the joys of bureaucracy on someone else’s dime, what’s too much? How about the $75,000 used in a team bike-building exercise? (The bikes were donated to charity, although I’d be scared to ride one without a thorough inspection.) Is paying more than $30,000 each for a reception and dinner too much? And what’s wrong with spending $7,000 on sushi and an additional $3,200 for a mind reader?

While the detailed lists of fancy shmancy party perks and inflated spending are bad enough, it’s the visuals that really stirred the pot. There were a number of photos showing GSA officials relaxing in luxurious suites and soaking away their cares in their in-room hot tubs. What’s worse is that some of the more enthusiastic attendees posted YouTube music videos showing them essentially glorying in wasting tax money. These wowed the crowd in Vegas, but the taxpayers were less than amused.

In the time-honoured tradition of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, these new federal travel and conference restrictions might put a huge dent in US government and laboratory participation at SC12 and other industry events. The new rules put a hard cap on event spending and the number of employees who can travel to a single event.

However, not all conferences and trips are boondoggles. (And I’m truly a recognised authority on the topic of boondoggle business trips.) The SC events, along with others associated with HPC, are good examples of events in the ‘not boondoggle’ category.

These agencies and labs are both the backbone and cutting edge of the HPC community. Government researchers provide much of the intellectual content of the educational programs, and the papers they present at these conferences often reveal ground-breaking technical and scientific advances.

These organisations also have a large presence on the exhibit floor, which gives the public a chance to see what’s being done with all of those supercomputers and to talk to the actual researchers who are extending the reach of science and technology.

I would like to think that these new requirements would be applied with thoughtful consideration on a case-by-case basis. Sending 300 paper pushers to Las Vegas to get their freak on is way, way different than sending a like number of lab researchers to present papers, staff show booths, and discuss what they’re doing with their peers.

I’ve been to several HPC-oriented industry events and have found that most of the spending by government attendees is, well, on the cheap side. Their rooms aren’t equipped with hot tubs, and are often so far away from the convention center that they require shuttle bus and commuter rail trips. Their meals are more burger ‘n fries than Beef Wellington.

And what about the giveaways? While the GSA types spent around $15,000 on trinkets for each other, that’s not something you see at an HPC event. At best you’ll get a souvenir bag or maybe a t-shirt (a thin crew-neck, not the more desirable polo variety.) I’ve even seen one government organisation giving away a ‘______ Supercomputer Repair Kit’ which consisted of a few squares of humble duct tape. And you can’t get much more thrifty than that. ®

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