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For academic parents, work travel can be costly—but some universities are stepping up their support

When Abby Engelberth brought her 1-year-old son to a conference this past spring, attendee after attendee—mostly women—commended her for setting a good example for combining family and professional life. “I was blown away by how positive they were,” says Engelberth, an assistant professor of agricultural and biological engineering at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. But, she adds, “I also wanted to [tell them], ‘Just so everyone knows this moving forward, this is a really expensive option.’”

She and her husband had decided that she would take their younger son, whom she was still nursing, to the conference while her husband stayed home with their 3-year-old. To help with child care during the 3-day symposium in Seattle, Washington, she hired a local nanny service, which at $30 an hour totaled about $800.

Luckily for Engelberth, she was able to cover some of the costs with a grant from her university that reimbursed dependent care expenses during professional travel. Funded by the College of Engineering as part of a 1-year pilot program which wrapped in June, faculty members in the college were eligible for reimbursement of up to $1000. “What we’re hearing [from faculty] is that it’s very useful,” says Arvind Raman, Purdue’s senior associate dean of the faculty, who helped launch the program. The program administrators hope to improve and possibly expand it to other parts of the university after collecting feedback. 

University-sponsored reimbursement programs like this one are rare across the United States, but they’re starting to multiply. A Northwestern University travel grant program that began in 2009 used to be one of the only such programs that existed, says Assistant Provost for Faculty Celina Flowers, but that’s changing. For example, Yale University, Stanford University, the University of Chicago, the University of Michigan, and the University of California (UC), San Francisco, all now offer some reimbursement for dependent travel. Like Purdue’s, these programs are mostly funded by donations or the schools, particularly dean of faculty offices—and many of them are restricted to faculty members.

In Purdue’s case, Raman says the faculty pilot program is a way to test out what works to support academics. In the future, other programs could possibly be put in place for graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, and staff with similar needs. “The idea is that this serves as inspiration,” he says.

Some scientific societies and conferences also offer travel grants and other support for academic parents. But university-based programs make a real difference, says UC San Francisco assistant professor Bassem Al-Sady. He and his wife, Hana El-Samad, also a UC San Francisco professor, used the university’s dependent care travel grant in 2015 to attend a conference in Hawaii with their son as well as a child care provider. University programs and policies that support child care needs serve a “signaling function” to researchers that family and career are compatible, Al-Sady says.

In July, the UC system as a whole added a new approach: The Office of the President announced a change in policy, allowing university staff to be reimbursed for dependent travel expenses. Notably, these reimbursements can be funded from federal and state research grants, as long as the granting agency allows it. For example, National Institutes of Health grants allow reimbursement for dependent travel costs if it is in line with university policy—a requirement because the research grants are administered by the university—while National Science Foundation grants do not. Some details remain to be determined, such as who among the staff qualifies for this reimbursement, and it will be up to each of the 10 UC campuses to decide how they wish to implement the policy, according to a UC spokesperson.

Raman commends UC’s new policy and is eager to learn more about it. He says they’ve had similar discussions about dependent travel expense reimbursements through research grants at Purdue, but the path to implementation wasn’t clear because reimbursement policies vary among funding agencies. 

Both the UC policy change and Purdue’s pilot program were prompted by requests from researchers. At Purdue, the women in engineering faculty group raised concerns during a regular meeting with the dean’s office in the spring of 2018 that traveling to conferences posed unique challenges for parent academics. When administrators looked into the issue, they found published evidence that policies addressing issues such as child care lead to better faculty retention and satisfaction, Raman says. “It’s surprising to see the gap between the research that shows the benefit and institutional policy across educational institutions,” he says.

By fall 2018, the program was ready for launch. Over the course of the yearlong pilot, the program approved nine grant requests—about two-thirds of which came from women—which is close to the number they expected, Raman says. But the program has one key restriction, which members of the women in engineering group were not happy about: If a spouse or relative wants to come on the trip to help provide child care, the grant can’t be used to cover their travel costs. As Engelberth says, that’s who many parents trust to watch their children. In her case, she instead had to take a “leap of faith” with a nanny service. “It was a little scary to go to a new city I’d never been to before, meet this person, and say, ‘OK, here’s my kid, here’s what he likes and doesn’t like, here’s the diapers, have at it,’” Engelberth says—adding that, fortunately, the nanny turned out to be great. But funding reimbursement for relatives is a “hard knot to untangle” due to institutional tax rules, Raman says.

Engelberth has taken her son to two conferences in the past year, and for both she was able to defray some of the costs using Purdue’s pilot program. She’s happy to see that, although programs to help support academic parents’ travel are still fairly unusual, it seems like people are starting to take ideas of inclusion to heart. “We’ve hired this wonderful diverse workforce and now we have to include them,” she says.

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