Travel Funds


This case discusses ethical issues related to responsible spending of travel funds.


As director of a governmental research program, Edward oversees the awarding of center grants to qualified universities. The grants are awarded to twenty different centers across the United States with five- to ten-year funding periods. The centers' annual budgets average $1 million.

Each year Edward organizes an obligatory annual meeting of the centers' program directors, associated faculty and graduate students in Washington, D.C. Approximately 400 people will attend the meeting this year, and Edward must select a facility that is capable of accommodating a meeting of this size. He could choose among numerous hotels and convention centers around the metropolitan area. As the meeting location, he selects a luxurious, historic hotel in downtown Washington where a number of the presidential inaugural balls have been hosted. This four-star hotel is one of the more expensive locations for accommodating this meeting, but clearly a hotel of this distinction will offer quality service to its guests. Edward signs a three-year contract with the hotel to reserve the meeting space for future years.

Each center will fund travel to the meeting for its participants, including airfare, hotel, additional transportation and meals. Group-rate rooms at this hotel cost each participant $200-$250. Each participant has a per diem meal allowance of $50. Edward and the other government employees from Washington who are attending the meeting decide also to stay at the hotel for convenient access to the early-morning sessions.

The meeting is a great success, and the service at the hotel is top-notch. On the last day of the meeting, participants completed an opinion survey about the meeting. Later that week, while reviewing the comments on the survey, Edward reads that several people have requested a less expensive site for future meetings. In fact, two of the program directors noted that the accommodations seemed somewhat extravagant. Considering that there are several other more economical options around the city, Edward decides to change the meeting location (after this contract expires with the present hotel) to a less expensive, three-star hotel.

Discussion Questions

  1. What are the ethical issues surrounding immoderate spending of taxpayers' money?
  2. Should travel money from research grants be allowed to cover a stay at a four- or five-star hotel?
  3. Since conference participants generally cover their costs with nonpersonal grant funds, should meeting organizers always choose the most attractive site for a conference, convention or meeting?
  4. What factors should play a part in their site-selection decisions?
  5. Once the site is chosen, what could a meeting organizer do to make the meeting more affordable to participants?
  6. Given that Edward's work location can accommodate groups of this size, should Edward consider holding the meeting there in order to further reduce the cost of future meetings?
  7. Since participants would be spending money for food whether or not they were attending the meeting, should travel funds from federal grants even cover food expenses?
  8. Given the "public" nature of this funding source, what is a fair amount to offer travelers as a per diem food allowance?

Brian Schrag, ed., Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries, Volume 6, Bloomington, Indiana: Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, 2002.

Insofar as an annual meeting is supported with taxpayers' money, it is important to keep the costs as moderate as possible. A further consideration in favor of moderate expenses is that at least some representation from each center is required by Edward's agency. In this case it seems that the government is paying a large part of the costs of the annual meeting, either directly or indirectly. In addition to covering costs of at least some of the participants' travel and lodging, Edward's agency has to pay for using the meeting facilities themselves. It seems that some of the participants will have their way paid by the research centers they represent. However, since the government generously supports these centers, it could be argued that, at least indirectly, the government is subsidizing the attendance of these representatives. Finally, unless each center is sending 15-20 representatives, it seems that there are many other attendees who will either pay their own way or seek support from someplace other than Edward's agency. Taxpayers' money may still be involved, as public university travel funds might be used as well.

Whether holding the meeting at a four-star hotel incurs immoderate expenses very much depends on the terms of the contract Edward has accepted. Discounts for the use of the facilities and group rates for lodging could add up to considerable savings. It is also possible that, in order to keep down the costs wherever the meeting is held, it is necessary to have several hundred in attendance. Having an attractive facility may be an important way of attracting those who are not required to attend. A similar argument might be used to justify holding the meeting in Washington, D.C., a rather expensive locale in general, rather than a less popular location.

Good hotel service is an important ingredient for a successful meeting, particularly when it involves hundreds of participants. If it could be shown that anything less than a four-star hotel could not provide good service for such a large number, that would support staying at a four-star hotel. In this case it is asserted that there are several more "economical options" around D.C. Assuming that these options can provide good service, that is an argument in favor of Edward's decision to change the meeting location. However, he should make sure that that is the case. Further, Edward needs to consider transportation costs to the "more economical" options.

Another factor to consider is the proximity of the meeting location to other places attendees (and those who may accompany them) might find of interest during their stay in D.C., including places to dine, places to visit, and other interesting activities or events. Although not part of the meeting itself, these features can weigh heavily in determining whether attendees will be satisfied with the total experience of coming to D.C. for the meeting.

After taking all relevant factors into consideration, if Edward can find satisfactory accommodations at less cost, the decision to change locations makes good sense, both economically and ethically. The change may be desirable even if, all things considered, expenses associated with the four-star hotel are not actually immoderate, but only somewhat more costly.

Author: Michael S. Pritchard, Western Michigan University.

The objective in writing this case was to encourage readers to consider the ethical issues related to responsible spending of travel funds. Many graduate students in the sciences are privileged recipients of research assistantships that afford funds for travel to conferences. In many a restaurant during a conference trip, colleagues remark, "Let's get appetizers and desserts - it's on the grant!" Even when more economical hotel accommodations are readily available and convenient, professors and staff may choose more luxurious sites. This commentary is not a proposal that the cheapest available accommodations should always be chosen, but that the economical options should be considered, given the public nature of the funding source. What choices would be made if one's own money were funding the travel? Are we responsibly spending the taxpayers' money when we travel and stay at a conference site? One could consider selecting an economical hotel that meets standards for cleanliness, safety and convenience to the meeting location instead of a more lavish location. Government-funded researchers have decided to stay at a more luxurious hotel simply because the grant will cover the expense; if their own money were to be used to pay for the hotel, they would have chosen other accommodations.

In this case, Edward is responsible for selecting the meeting site and has selected one of the most posh hotels in the D.C. area. Clearly, other options are more affordable and equally comfortable for participants. Since Edward is responsible for this decision, he, too, should consider the public nature of the funding source for this meeting. It appears that his decision is based solely on comfort, convenience and service, with inadequate attention to cost. Furthermore, Edward and his staff stay at the hotel despite living in the D.C. area. This action is an additional misuse of government funds.

Holding the annual meeting at Edward's work location seems like a viable option. His government work site has several meeting facilities that can handle groups of this size at virtually no cost. In weighing the time and energy it would take to arrange for catering services and shuttle services at his site, Edward would have to judge whether it would be the better choice. Based on his previous record for such decisions, it is not likely that Edward would select his work site for this function. Edward does listen earnestly to the participants' comments about the cost and excessive luxury of the meeting site and consequently opts for a less expensive location for future meetings. For this reason, this case serves as a "best practices" example.

It could be argued that nothing illegal or immoral is occurring when travel funds from governmental grants are used to stay at luxurious accommodations. The spending is all out in the open, and the researchers are the "public" who benefits from these travel awards. However, this information is not commonly shared among the general public that also contributes to these travel funds through its taxes. The public should be allowed to decide how its money gets spent, but generally remains ignorant of such allocations. How would a lower-income, single mother of two children feel about some portion of her tax money funding the participants at this meeting? Does she really have a say in the spending of her tax dollars for government-funded travel? Ideally, congressional representatives consider the overall good of their constituents when deciding on such matters. Excessive travel luxuries should be regarded as an unacceptable use of the public's tax money; rather, these monies should be used to fund moderate travel, accommodations and meals. Guidelines could be created to determine appropriate travel expenditures based on typical costs for a given city. Accommodations exceeding these guidelines should be paid with personal finances. Similar spending brackets could be designed for meal allowances.

Attractiveness is an important consideration for meeting organizers, especially for non-obligatory meetings such as conferences and workshops. Especially in the case of international conferences, organizers must consider airport accessibility, weather and city desirability among other details. Certainly greater international participation would be likely at a February conference in San Diego than in Oswego, New York, although hotels and restaurants are more affordable in the latter city.

Several practices could be undertaken to reduce costs to travelers at a conference. Although it is not standard practice, meeting organizers could facilitate the creation of a list of participants who would like to share a hotel room. Shuttle services could be arranged for groups arriving at the city airport simultaneously. Providing local train and bus schedules is yet another way to encourage meeting participants to opt for more economical travel costs.

The per diem food allowance is another point of discussion. Given the public nature of this funding source, grant funds for food should be spent responsibly. The "let's get appetizers and desserts" mentality is an irresponsible perspective. If one considers the daily amount spent on food whether or not one is attending a conference, perhaps grantors should fund less than the entire amount spent on travel meals. According to the U. S. Department of Agriculture's Food Stamps Program, recipients of other governmental sustenance programs such as welfare receive a daily food allowance of roughly $3.60. (A non-income, three-person household is eligible for $329 per month in food stamp benefits.) The Department reports that the average monthly amount of benefits for food stamp recipients in 1998 was about $71 per person. Perhaps travel meals funded from governmental sources should be on par with this other governmental program for public sustenance.

Given that travel funds often derive from governmental agencies, and thus our public tax money, researchers traveling on these funds should carefully evaluate their practices in spending the public's money through the use of grant funds. The funding agencies themselves can also institute more thorough guidelines for responsible travel expenditures. The NSF, for example, specifies that funded air travel must not exceed the cost of round-trip, economy airfares; however, no mention of economy is indicated regarding accommodations or meals in the NSF's Proposal Preparation Instructions. As recipients of "publicly" funded travel awards, many directors, researchers and students can improve their spending decisions to use public funds efficiently and ethically.


  • National Science Foundation Grant Proposal Guide, June 2001 (
  • U. S. Department of Agriculture Food Stamp Program (