As a Cancer Prevention Fellow at the NCI, I have a generous $3000 “travel and training budget” for attending conferences to present research results, taking training and academic courses, as well as purchasing textbooks that are pertinent to my research. Many labs or research groups at the NIH provide funding to their postdoctoral fellows for similar purposes.
I have mostly used my budget for registering for and traveling to conferences. These opportunities have been important for furthering my development as a new cancer researcher. I have shared research findings, developed collaborations, nurtured some camaraderie among colleagues, and even had a beer with some of the “big names” in the field. For the last two years, my goal has been to stretch my budget so that I can attend as many conferences as possible.
Traveling in accord with government rules, however, is not always easy on your allotted budget or sanity. First, airline tickets must be purchased through a government contractor, and only fully refundable government-contracted tickets can be purchased. These government-contracted flights may eat up substantially more of your travel and training budget compared with the lowest ticketed price listed on Travelocity.com. Rules about economy class seating apply to all government employees, from postdoctoral fellows to the President-appointed Director of the NCI.
Second, to use the travel and training budget for hotel expenses, one must stay at a hotel that offers an accepted government rate, which is sometimes more cost-saving than the regularly posted (or AAA) rate, although bidding on William Shatner-advertised Priceline.com would surely score an even better deal. Here is the website for government-negotiated hotel rates and per diem expenses, which vary by season and location: http://www.gsa.gov/portal/category/21287
Conferences are often held in locations that I want to further explore on my own time. When traveling to a conference in the US, one personal leave day can be requested for each conference day. When traveling to a conference outside of the US, a total of only two personal leave days can be requested. Of course, all costs associated with personal days, including additional days of parking the car at the Dulles International Airport economy lot, cannot be reimbursed from the travel and training budget.
If a company, institution, or society invites you to participate at a conference and offers to pay for your travel expenses, this is considered “sponsored travel.” Any such travel must be cleared through the Ethics Office, which usually requires additional mind-numbing paperwork. “Sponsored travel” expenses cannot be reimbursable, meaning that all of your conference registration, flight, and hotel expenses must be pre-paid or provided in-kind by the inviting institution. You may not receive any honorarium or payment for your participation. In addition, any incidental costs such as food expenses must come from your own travel and training budget. In other words, you should never receive any money from outside institutions or appear to be swayed or influenced by financial incentives or economic gain from an outside institution.
These same ethical standards also usually apply to traveling to and giving talks as part of a lecture series or colloquia at academic institutions. Such ethical standards usually apply to scholar-in-training or student travel awards as well. Moreover, postdoctoral fellows may not accept awards that are funded in any part by the government (all awards must pass Ethics Office scrutiny).
In the event of a government shut-down, such as the one that threatened to occur in April 2011 during the federal budget deadlines, all travel must be discontinued (come home immediately) or canceled if the passenger has not yet departed.
The Travel Coordinator assigned to your research group can be your best friend if he/she has dependable skills in navigating the federal government travel system. As much as I grumble about these rules, I understand that they are in place so that I, as a public servant, am free of conflicts of interest and can conduct research at the NIH that is held to the highest ethical standards.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Government.
Wenny Lin, PhD, MPH, is a fellow in the Cancer Prevention Fellowship Program at the National Cancer Institute. Prior to joining the Nutritional Epidemiology Branch in the Division of Cancer Epidemiology & Genetics, Wenny earned her MPH from the Harvard School of Public Health in 2009 and her PhD in Cell & Molecular Biology from the University of Pennsylvania in 2008.