Thursday, July 28, 2011

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!

1 comment:

  1. This post illustrates one of the small issues that are part of the larger problem at UVM in that there seems to be no mechanism to reward success. UVM should be doing everything in its power to make Paul's trip effortless given his achievements. UVM has unfortunately entered an age where increased bureaucracy though new regulations and procedures is a rewarded behavior. There undoubtedly needs to be checks and balances, but I have come to think that a management structure in which the researchers have more influence over these policies would be better for all. We have lost track of our mission and it seems that the current thinking is that regulations, compliance, policies, and procedures are our focus.