Thursday, July 28, 2011

Policy on use of 4-wheel drive vehicles

Many people were concerned about the apparently absolute prohibition of 4-wheel drive vehicles in the newly posted travel policy. A statement of the problem is well put by Paul Bierman, below. A response from Claire Burlingham in the UVM Controller's office provides useful guidance that would be quite helpful as part of the stated policy.

On 7/7/2011 10:44 AM, Paul Bierman wrote (lightly edited by Breck Bowden here):
Hi Gary, Claire, and Dan,

Thanks for sending these [new travel] policies on.

When the draft travel policy was issued, a number of us faculty [identified in a cc list] returned comments to our supervisors [also listed] related to rental of four wheel drive vehicles for grant-supported field research. As geologists, ecologists, hydrologists, and natural scientists, there are many times when we need to rent 4 wheel drive vehicles for field access in remote and roadless ares - areas not accessible by the specific rental cars listed in the travel policy document.

In fact, from my experience our work on Army bases was only possible because we rented 4 wheel drives - had we shown up without such vehicles, we would have been denied access - that was made clear ahead of field work on several military bases. Our work in the remote ares of Africa also mandates the use of these vehicles; without them, there would be significant hazard of getting stuck and associated hazards to life and limb in places where rescue is not always quick or assured.

I articulated both of these concerns in my comments on the draft travel policy.
For reasons that I am not privy to, these comments were not considered in the final policy. Please [consider any map of the areas in which I work, including] Greenland, South Africa, and Namibia and imagine us in a compact car crossing dry river beds or rocky roads leading to glacial rivers. Our work as scientists demands we get to the field and 4 wheel drives are a tool of the trade. I was disturbed that UVM administration did not realize that there are legitimate uses of 4 wheel drive vehicles when issuing the draft policy.

I am more disturbed that after soliciting our input, that input was not incorporated in the final draft of the travel policy. The current policy effectively shuts down many natural science research programs or leaves us as faculty risking great personal expense should the charge be denied.
Note that the cost of 4 wheel drive vehicles is often specifically called out in the funding document. I respectfully ask that you re-examine the policy and add an exception for use of 4 wheel drive vehicles in remote areas approved by or mandated by sponsoring agencies.

Response from Clair Burlingham, Comptroller for UVM:
Thank you for your feedback regarding the rental of four wheel drive vehicles. The intent of Part III section 2 (4) was to not allow the rental of luxury or four wheel drive vehicles when a midsized car would be appropriate. We have seen many many instances where individuals have upgraded their rental to a luxury or four wheel drive vehicle when there was no business purpose and just because it was on the universities nickle. Certainly if there is a legitimate business purpose and the traveler has the approval of the Department Chair or Dean then the cost will be reimbursed. This will need to be reviewed and approved on a case by case basis. I hope this helps clarify this issue. If you have any additional questions or need further clarification please feel free to ask. Thank you, Claire

PS From Breck:
And so...there is stated policy and there is unstated policy. Logic dictates that if we promulgate policies, they should be complete in all details or should at least state that extenuating circumstances may allow decision-makers to allow justified costs on a case by case basis. In this case, a simple clarification to the existing policy would make sense.

Traveling abroad under UVM's Travel Policy - Policy vs Reality

Recently Paul Bierman from Geology sent me this story which is relevant to issues about travel reimbursement policies and per diem, especially traveling abroad:  

Recently I was at a very large international meeting in Bern, Switzerland, that happens once every four of the best networking/UVM reputation building meetings I know..and one of the most expensive cities I've ever been too. Skipping the meeting was not an option given what I do professionally. Those attending the meeting are the people who review my students' papers, my papers, and my grant applications.

We went to dinner last night at a very modest cafe - NOT a fancy place by any means. Entree's started at 36 francs, that's > $44.00 - most of what's allowed for an entire day by UVM. A cheap coffee anywhere in town is $7.00. So there's my UVM-reimbursed eating for the day - all but a few dollars of it. And so, we decided to go to the farmer's market for lunch to save $$. But farmer's markets don't offer receipts. So the fruit and veges end up being an out-of-pocket cost, not reimbursable. Gelato for desert from a street vendor, no receipt...could have paid $10 US for the same cone from a sit down place and gotten a receipt I suppose, but that didn't make sense.

This is a 100% NSF grant funded trip - I am presenting data generated over the last three years under an NSF polar programs grant. Just for fun, I checked the state department web site ( They suggest meals and incidental expenses costs for Bern are $195. So, UVM's suggested non-per-diem, per diem of $60, is less than a third of what the US Government suggests it will cost. Being in Bern, I can tell you the US State Department is right. To eat reasonably (not extravagantly) would cost at least twice what UVM's new rules allow.

Please, don't get me wrong. Bern is a wonderful place to visit and it's a privilege to have gone. For four days, I've spent from 7 am until 11 pm with some of my closest collaborators from all over the world talking science and planning projects and going over data. And yes, as a full professor I can afford to subsidize my travel here.

But, it's really hit home here in Europe that the new travel policy is completely out of touch with what we do day to day as faculty. There is a reason that reimbursement rate vary around the world- that is, that costs vary. Have the folks who wrote it ever traveled to a country outside the US where things work differently - where receipts aren't the norm. Traveled to someplace where the infrastructure is so poor you need a 4 wheel drive to get around - where there are no other options, Africa, South America? From a cultural point of view, this new policy is very US-centric.

We are told to value diversity and to take initiative but this policy does anything but. We need a travel policy that recognizes that travel costs are not the same everywhere, that not every culture provides receipts, and that reimbursements need to be scaled to the cost of travel to a particular place.

At least the chocolate's cheap here...and really good...maybe I'll have a bar or two for dinner tomorrow.

Paul Bierman

PS from Breck Bowden: It seems especially egregious that Paul is put in the position of subsidizing his sustenance out of pocket while traveling on UVM business when we have just learned in the last few days that our just exiting President will receive an annual subsidy in excess of his salary (as he has for the last 9 years of his tenure) that is MORE THAN TWO TIMES HIGHER than a subsidy of $60/day for every day of the calendar year!

Monday, July 25, 2011

The "Proposal-Award" communication void

For several years I have had a productive working relationship with a client who has funded research in my lab. Of necessity this client has had to fund the research on a year-to-year basis depending on their ability to secure adequate resources. In late 2010 we began negotiations for an extension of the project into the 2011 field year. A work plan and budget were approved in principle by the client and by UVM/OSP and I transmitted the final documents with our standard letter of transmittal on 13 Jan 2011. However, nothing further transpired.

Recently I became aware that this new award was "missing" and after several panicked calls was able to determine that it was likely that the funding was still available and would be awarded as soon as possible.

However, the reaction from OSP (now SPA) on this matter illustrates a management issue that needs to be addressed. Specifically, nobody asked the simple question "Why, after 7 months, have we not heard anything on this award?" In any other corporate entity (and UVM is a corporate entity), if a final work plan had been negotiated with a client who had promised to provide funding, someone would follow up if the client failed to provide the promised award.

So, what was UVM's response? After a period of time the file for this work plan was marked "inactive" and set aside.
No one contacted the client to ask: "Where is that award letter?" No one contacted me to ask: "Do you want us to mark this folder as inactive?" No one contacted anyone to ask: "Should we archive this budget which is still open?" No one asked: "Why is the last entry in InfoEd on this project marked "submitted" with absolutely no follow up?"

We have spent considerable sums in recent years on software and people whose function it is to manage our sponsored programs. The miscommunication I've described here is not acceptable for a university that aspires to be a first-tier research university. The time it has taken me to track down this problem takes away from time that I could be using to analyze data, write papers, teach students, or write proposals. So, it impairs my ability to do research that benefits the state, the university, my students, ...and ultimately me.

We must do better. The key need here is better communication during the critical period between the date a proposal is submitted and the date it is awarded.


Why start this blog?

Dear Research Friends and Colleagues at UVM,

Over the last few years you may have received one or more of my "tirades" on some aspect of protocols at UVM that consume time (and money) that we could otherwise productively put to use doing research that helps our state and region and to provide opportunities for our students to gain experience and participate in the creation of new ideas. Most of these tirades were written in jest and were mainly a way for me to vent my frustration. But they all had an element of truth. And unfortunately, the consequences are no longer humorous.

The fact is that conducting research in today's highly regulated environment is complicated. Certainly the research is becoming more complicated. But the frustrating thing for all of us is that simply managing the research is getting so complicated that one sometimes wonders if it is worth it to respond to a new call for a proposal because of the headaches you'll have to negotiate.

Many of the rules that are making our research lives so complicated are created outside UVM, by agencies and by agency watchdogs. But it is also the case that many rules are made or re-interpreted by UVM. And these rules are all changing daily. I think it is also a fact that grants and contracts administrator and the researchers with which they interact simply don't understand one another. From my biased researcher point of view, grants and contracts administrators have no clue what I have to do keep a research program going. But I'm willing to admit that I might not have clue what a grants and contracts administrator has to put up with in their normal working day. This disconnect is hurting us.

I take it as a given that those of us who are interested in making UVM one the best small, full-spectrum, teaching-research universities in the country, would like to see our systems work for us in a way that makes our lives easier and more productive. I assume this to be true of both the researcher and the grants and contacts communities. However, issues still arise. The problem is that there is no easy way to document these issues and track whether and how something can be done to resolve the issues.

Thus, this blog.

I resolve to avoid tirades. Instead, I would like to start documenting a civil and proactive that we can start making this a better place at which to do research. I invite you to please send me your civil and proactive issues as well. My intention is make this a moderated blog. I will remove posts that are inappropriate. However, I encourage you to send me your own issues...or better...your own solutions to issues. Thoughtful comments on theses issues...from other researchers and from the grants and contracts community are welcome.

You are welcome to comment on this blog. Alternatively, you may write me directly at It would be helpful if you put something like "Research Blog" in the subject line. I'll post issues and ideas as I receive them. If you want to remain anonymous, just let me know.

Please feel free to pass this blog URL on to your colleagues at UVM. Let's see if we can make it easier to do good research at UVM.

Breck Bowden
Patrick Professor of Watershed Science
Director, Vermont Water Resrouces and Lakes Studies Center
Director, Theme I, Northeastern States Research Cooperative
Coordinator, NSF Arctic Long-Term Research Program Streams Research