University reimburses Department of Energy extended assignment funds

May 21, 2012 11:21 a.m.

Princeton University has agreed to reimburse $1 million to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) following a report by the DOE inspector general (IG) on a program at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) under which employees were assigned to work for extended periods of time at other U.S. laboratories engaged in fusion energy research. The University manages PPPL under a contract with the DOE.

Even though all of the expenditures under the program were intended to advance agreed-upon scientific objectives, were in compliance with PPPL's contract and applicable federal regulations, and were examined in periodic audits and IG reports, the latest report raised questions about the duration of some of the assignments and the level of supplemental payments that were intended to offset costs incurred by PPPL employees working at other locations.

In its response to the IG report, DOE management noted that "in an offer of good faith and in recognition of its stewardship of taxpayer funds," the University agreed to the $1 million reimbursement.

"We share DOE's concerns about the expenditure of taxpayer dollars, and while the expenditures under this program were allowable and intended to serve important scientific purposes, in retrospect we recognize that they may have been greater than they needed to be to achieve the objectives of the program," said Robert Durkee, vice president and secretary of the University. "We are already fully compliant with new and more restrictive policies that are now in place, and going forward we will take special care any time we approve assignments for the overall good of the fusion program that add to its costs."

The extended assignment program was developed in 1998 by officials at PPPL in concert with officials at DOE. Having one or two leading PPPL scientists at each of the other major U.S. fusion facilities (General Atomics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Oak Ridge) achieved significant scientific objectives and encouraged collaboration and sharing of information. Assignments were made on a year-by-year basis, but were renewable following review each year. Because of the scientific value of the assignments, some were continued over an extended period of years — in one case for 14 years and in others for nine and 10 years — but each extension was for a year at a time.

The scientists who accepted these assignments were provided with taxable housing allowances to permit them to obtain housing at the sites where they were assigned, with the amounts determined by federal regulations. They also received a payment of 12 percent of salary to help offset other expenses associated with living away from their home assignment at PPPL. 

Under the new policies, such assignments are limited to three years; the housing allowances are reduced; and the supplemental payments have been discontinued.