STEM-Trek was founded in 2012 following a series of events that had an impact on scholarly travel.
The Year 2000, or Y2K sparked a chain reaction of events that placed a growing burden on academic central information technology (IT) support divisions—in most cases, the same folks who support research computing. Fear of the millennium bug temporarily diverted the attention of those who had been struggling with an increased number and severity of tech exploits. On September 11, 2001, an assault on the U.S. World Trade Center in New York City sent shock-waves around the globe, and a renewed interest in defense and security arose among all nations. In the U.S., it was necessary for universities and national laboratories to accommodate new policies relating to export controls, the transfer of intellectual property, software, and technologies. The Freedom of Information and Homeland Security Acts were quickly penned, and adopted.
The series of events occurred when institutional budgets were lean and the burden of compliance fell to IT support divisions who searched for creative ways to balance the budget (Miller, 2009). Consequently, in many cases IT communications, outreach and education personnel were displaced in favor of security staff. Travel and conferencing budgets were low-hanging fruit to be trimmed more aggressively each year. Asynchronous professional development was favored over any that involved travel and face-to-face engagement. The cost of travel escalated with the price of fuel. Travel was regarded by many as a luxury.
In early 2012, the U.S. government reacted to a 2010 incident known as the “Las Vegas Conference Scandal,” where public funds were abused by the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA). A subsequent chain-reaction of cutbacks has affected all U.S. agency travel and conferencing budgets that had already been trimmed post 9-11; some pledging to cut them by an additional 40 percent. Because many global conference-goers are from U.S. agency-supported initiatives, GSA conduct in 2010-12 will have had an impact on future conferencing everywhere (Zients, May 2012; Pellerin, June 2012).
Yet, for global STEM scholars who use advanced cyberinfrastructure for their research, and those who support the technology they use, travel and professional development go hand-in-hand. Graduate and postdoctoral scholars who are just learning to leverage performance technologies are most deeply affected by cutbacks. Professional organization and industry conferences are a point of convergence where skilled and novice professionals test-drive new technologies and meet current and future collaborators. While online education and grid-enabled technologies allow researchers to remotely-access resources, many processes are best learned through direct observation. Team-building, hands-on demonstrations, data management and resource provider site training are a few activities that are best learned through observation and direct engagement. For high-tech scholars who cannot travel, the processes of education, research innovation, international collaboration and discovery are impaired.
Mass reductions in travel and conferencing budgets mean that fewer can attend technical conferences. Conference funding models changed further in 2020 with COVID-19 and the advent of virtual conferencing. Synchronous, online events are challenging for attendees from disparate time zones; especially those who are sheltering in place with children. With fewer registration fees to support quality programming, the integrity and future of STEM conferences could be in peril, not to mention the revenue lost to prospective host cities and the travel industry, in general. Until all can travel safely again, STEM-Trek will explore ways to aggregate and build upon open-source online training on behalf of those with access to the Internet, and identify ways to bridge last-mile network gaps for others.