Monday brought news of an investigation by the government of accounting (mal-)practices at Yale. It’s basically a news bite, but the upshot is that Yale has a lot of grant money and doesn’t keep track of it very well, probably because they play fast and loose.
Shift the focus over to UC Berkeley, where getting reimbursed for anything is like squeezing water out of a stone. The money is there, but according to an email I received on the grad student list, “the advisor, the GA [grant administrator], and someone from ERSO [the office that handles research support] are all required to sign off on a travel reimbursement.” The end result is that it can take 3-6 months to get reimbursed for a conference trip, which you have to pay for out of pocket. For an international trip, that gets pricey fast. The proposed solutions are to implement a corporate credit card, provide greater access to the university travel agent, and so on. I think this is how MIT does things, but they’re a private school.
The real question is how to build an efficient reimbursement system that allows graduate students, who spend most of the grant money (on travel and equipment, etc), to be reimbursed efficiently, with enough oversight to avoid problems. The main problem at Berkeley seems to be that the PI on a grant actually doesn’t have control over their money. It should be feasible to pre-allocate a certain amount of money before a conference happens and earmark it for those reimbursements. As long as the total submitted request falls below that level and nothing is particularly suspicious, the student could get reimbursed from those funds.
For example, I’m going to Seattle next week for ISIT. I’ve bought my ticket, reserved my hotel room, and have a sense for the per-diem expenses. My advisor should be able to tell the grant administrator “set aside $250 (plane) + $240 (hotel) + $160 (incidentals).” I might end up spending more than that if I have to take a cab from the airport, but that would certainly cover the bulk of my expenses and that way I wouldn’t be $640 in the hole for 6 months. I know there are other solutions, but this should be more simple to implement than getting a corporate credit card and all of its attendant problems.