Administrators and the Responsible Conduct of Research
Case Study:
First Class

First Class

Prof. Williams, Principal Investigator (PI) on an NIH grant, has returned from a professional conference, and submitted his travel report and receipts for reimbursement to the department administrator, Ethel Nightingale.

Nightingale has reviewed the receipts and everything seems to be in order, except for a puzzling receipt for round-trip first class airfare between Boston and Los Angeles.

When Williams drops by the department office for coffee the next morning, Nightingale asks him to stop in her office. "Prof. Williams, I'm working on your reimbursement for the L.A. trip, but don't understand this receipt for first class airfare," says Nightingale.

"Oh that," replies Williams affably."I did some checking online, and managed to find a first class ticket for basically the same cost as a coach ticket. How about that?"

"Is that possible? I'd love to know about that site," says Nightingale.

"Well, technically this ticket wasn't the same as coach fare. You know how I usually don't manage to get around to buying my plane tickets until a week or two before the meeting? Well, this time, thinking about my back problems, I decided to check out deals farther in advance, and I found this first class ticket for just about the same price as the full-fare coach ticket I would usually get. So, I got to be more comfortable on that long haul from Boston to LA, and the ticket was only a bit more than what I've usually paid."

"Well, I don't know..."

"Come on," Williams interrupts Nightingale, "No one's going to complain. Even an auditor wouldn't squawk because it's almost the same price as my ticket to LA a couple months ago. I was trying to keep the price down, and here I am back in the lab with my back feeling better than when I left."

"I’m sorry, Prof. Williams, but this is an NIH grant and federal policy requires flight on the lowest available fare, not full-fare coach, which is significantly more expensive,” explains Nightingale.

"For heaven's sake, now you sound like some inflexible, unreasonable bureaucrat!" fumes Williams as he picks up his coffee mug from Nightingale's desk. As he walks out the door he remarks, "I expected better from you after all these years of working together. It would be a shame if something minor like this were to jeopardize that relationship, and the work on my grant."

Case Discussion
Interests of the Affected Parties:

Prof. Williams has an interest in attending professional conferences and traveling as comfortably as possible. He also has an interest in getting the money that he spent reimbursed.

Ethel needs to resolve the conflict between her working relationship with Prof. Williams and the responsibilities of her job. She also has an interest in being truthful when charging expenses to the NIH grant.

Ethical Issues

Prof. Williams needs to be aware of three ethical issues. First, he needs to recognize that he is placing his narrow self-interest over and above his responsibilities to the university. He appears to have made a conscious decision to fly first class for a variety of reasons. The fact that those reasons are not acceptable justification appears to carry no weight with him. Second, Williams is not exercising proper stewardship by, at first, being unfamiliar with federal policy and then, when informed, proposing that his violation be kept quiet. Third, he is acting unethically toward Ethel both in proposing that she act unethically, but also then subtly threatening her.

Ethel has a conflict in balancing of her working relationship with Williams and within the department with her duties to protect the university's interests and abide by a sponsor's policies.

Consequences of Actions

There are serious potential consequences if Williams and Ethel agree to charge the grant with inappropriate expenses. First, this could encourage Williams to continue this inappropriate behavior and engage Ethel's cooperation. This could further entice others to cut corners and falsely justify questionable expenses.

The consequences of one instance of charging inappropriate expenses to a federal award would likely be a disallowance of the cost. Should there be a pattern of similar activity, the consequences become far more serious. It can result in serious penalities and the exercise of greater financial controls by the federal government.

The consequences of Ethel not agreeing to do as Williams proposes could indeed ruin her working relationship with Prof. Williams. Once the circumstances are known, however, it is unlikely to have a similar effect with other faculty. If she agrees to do as Williams proposes, there is a possibility that her error would be caught by auditors, but perhaps she could explain it was just an error. The university would have to pay funds back to the government, but it would unlikely result in any negative consequences for her. At the same time, she knows what Williams is proposing is wrong and unethical and that saying it was an oversight would be a lie.


The obligations of Williams, Ethel, and the university are to exercise appropriate and ethical stewardship in the charging of expenses to sponsored projects. It necessary for all concerned to be aware of the relevant regulations and policies, and to abide by them.

Williams also has the obligation to refrain from using his status to bully and threaten those providing services to him. He needs to treat administrative staff with respect for their knowledge and responsibilities, and to avoid the temptation of taking advantage of the inequity of power.

Ethel has the obligation to refuse to charge inappropriate expenses. If Williams were to continue to threaten her with negative consequences and she cannot resolve this problem, she should report Williams' behavior to the department chair and ask for assistance. If that proved ineffective, then she will need to need to weigh the potential consequences to reporting this matter to other possible sources of assistance whether within the academic administration or to Human Resources.

The university has the obligation to train its personnel effectively, and employees have the obligation to act in accordance with that training. The university, in accepting the NIH grant, also agreed to exercise proper stewardship over the expenditure of federal funds. It also has an interest in avoiding negative audit findings that would result in the disallowance of costs.