Home Away From Home Pays Off for DOE Physicists

Science on the move. The National Spherical Torus Experiment at the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab, where the cost of temporary assignments has raised flags.

Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory

Four physicists from the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) in New Jersey racked up more than $1.5 million in lodging subsidies while on "temporary" assignment to other labs, according to a report released last week by the Department of Energy (DOE), which owns the lab. Those assignments lasted as long as 14 years, meaning that at least some researchers were no longer commuting but had moved to their new work sites.

In his report, DOE Inspector General Gregory Friedman called the costs "questionable" and "unreasonable." Princeton University, which manages the nuclear fusion lab under a contract with DOE, has agreed to return $1 million to the department and has ended the subsidies.

On 18 May, a front-page story in The Washington Post hinted at malfeasance, saying that the four unnamed physicists "had found a way to turn 'per diem' funds for a temporary assignment into a steady flow of extra income." However, Robert Durkee, vice president and secretary of Princeton University, says the researchers did nothing wrong and were simply beneficiaries of an overly generous policy to promote collaboration between labs. "We realize that [the program] could have been done for less, and that is why we were willing to return the $1 million," Durkee says.

The subsidies raise eyebrows among other physicists, however. "It's unusual," says Michael Lubell, a lobbyist with the American Physical Society in Washington, D.C. Lubell notes that academic post-docs generally do not receive lodging subsidies when they are assigned to a national lab. "If Princeton is giving back the money, then I suspect they took a look at it and said that it looks irregular," he says.

In his report, Friedman found that two PPPL employees had received a total of $1.04 million in housing subsidies for "temporary" assignment to General Atomics in San Diego, California, which, like PPPL, runs an experimental fusion device known as a tokamak. Those subsidies continued for 9 and 14 years, respectively. DOE policies generally do not allow for such subsidies beyond 2 or 3 years. "Consequently, we considered these costs to be unreasonable," Friedman wrote. In the most recent year, each researcher received about $4000 a month in per diem housing subsidies. In addition, the researchers received "field service premiums" equal to 12% of their salaries.

DOE's Office of Science independently found that a third PPPL employee had received lodging subsidies of more than $400,000 since 2002 for temporary assignment to the Massachusetts Institute Technology in Cambridge, where DOE also has a tokamak. A fourth had received more than $95,000 in housing subsidies for assignment, starting in 2007, to Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, Office of Science officials also found. Those two employees also received a 12% salary boost, Friedman's report says.

The expenses are allowed under a 1998 laboratory policy designed to foster collaboration with other laboratories and were built into the employees' temporary assignment agreements, Durkee says. Those assignments were simply renewed each year, he says. "There was good scientific reason to renew [each agreement] and no policy to prevent it going forward," he says.

Durkee says that lab officials actually gave the employees 100% of the federal rates for per diem allowance in the various locations. Friedman's report notes that DOE generally does not allow for per diem charges for assignments longer than 2 years and limits them to 55% of the maximum after 30 days.

The report comes at a particularly delicate time for PPPL. The Obama Administration has proposed slashing spending on the domestic fusion research by 16% in the 2013 fiscal year that begins on 1 October and is using the savings to help pay for the U.S. contribution to the international fusion experiment ITER, under construction in Cadarache, France. That cut could mean laying off roughly one-quarter of PPPL's staff of 430.

Congressional appropriators have voted to block such cuts, but Lubell worries that the incident could damage the lab's reputation among lawmakers: "If you're a budget cutter and you believe that there's a hell of a lot of waste, this feeds right into that mindset."