More on NCI Travel: Junkets or Sharing Science?

Last month, ethics watchdog Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) raised a fuss about certain trips by National Cancer Institute (NCI) intramural scientists that were paid for by nonfederal sources. In a letter to NCI and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Grassley questioned trips, often to foreign destinations and costing $10,000 or more, and asked for details.

Some of the information, it turns out, is not hard to find: Federal agencies are required to send biannual reports on so-called sponsored travel to the Office of Government Ethics, which makes them available to the public. ScienceInsider scrolled through a lengthy spreadsheet for NIH from October 2008 through March 2009—a portion of the 2008-2009 period that Grassley's letter scrutinized.

The data for NCI don't reveal any big surprises. Contrary to Grassley's claim that "the destinations were almost exclusively international," there is a fairly even mix of domestic and foreign (including Canadian) cities. Most often the trips were to give talks sponsored by universities or scientific societies. And even the high number of trips for some scientists diminishes when put in context.

Take Louis Staudt, who tops Grassley's list of frequent flyers for 2008 and 2009 (33 trips). Staudt took 11 trips from October 2008 through March 2009—but many were back-to-back, so he may have been away just six times. Three of nine destinations were international (Austria, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands). The priciest was $8632 to give two talks in Amsterdam; on the low end was an $807 trip to give a keynote speech at a symposium at the University of Rochester in New York. Staudt was out of the office a lot, at least 30 days, in the 6-month period. But frequent travel is not unusual for an internationally recognized scientist.

Some travelers did run up eye-popping tabs. For example, Wyndham Wilson took a $15,320 trip to give a talk at a hematology meeting and meet with a society president in Perth, Australia. Yves Pommier gave three seminars in Japan for a total cost of about $15,200. And the World Health Organization paid more than $11,000 for Mirjana Djordjevic to serve as a WHO advisor at a meeting in South Africa. In at least one case, spouses coordinated their trips: Susan Gottesman and Michael Gottesman (who is also NIH deputy director for intramural research) apparently gave talks at separate institutions and meetings in Beijing and Shanghai in October 2008 (cost: around $4600 to $4800 each).

Grassley's letter cites concerns from an NCI ethics official (who was later reassigned) that accepting the trips might be "an illegal augmentation of NCI's government travel appropriation," or an activity that goes beyond what Congress has provided funding to do. The 6-month total, $904,628, extrapolated to a year amounts to $1.8 million—around 0.4% of NCI's roughly $500 million intramural budget.

NIH Director Francis Collins defended the trips in an interview with reporters last week. He pointed out that the intramural scientists receive no personal payment, just travel and lodging, and that the trips are reviewed for conflicts of interest. "I kind of don't get it, ... why this should be considered a cause of some sort of concern about ethical behavior," Collins said.

As for the time away from the lab, "Would you want them to sort of hang back in their lab instead of having a chance to interact with other colleagues who are working in similar areas and identify new potential for collaboration?" Collins asked. He continued, "Science is an international enterprise now. ... You could argue about one particular meeting, was that one necessary. ... But certainly the need for these kinds of personal interactions in science is compelling. And okay, 12 trips a year, that means once a month somebody is out for a couple of days at a meeting. That doesn't sound in those terms excessive."