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I assume this varies from different universities/research institutes/countries, however, is there a general percentage or ethical rule on how much money from a grant can or should be spent on food and meetings? When I was a graduate student I didn't need to deal with this too much, but also never really saw any of my advisors going out to nice dinners or having meals with people on research funds, granted, they did do it with the internal budgets of the institute.

My current situation had me get a grant for around 20,000 USD, the project is 8 months, and was asked to list how much money I will spend on food and meetings. I had always thought of this to be inappropriate as research money should be for research. Am I over thinking it and this is a normal practice? I was told 1k of the 20k could be for food, but asked for 200 instead, out of my own thinking of what should be appropriate for giving students or interns coffee (this is separate than the money reserved for travelling to conferences).

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What do you mean by "meetings", if not "traveling to conferences"? – Nate Eldredge Mar 11 '14 at 3:42
"meetings" are me using the funding to pay for a train ticket to meet some collaborators on a project and buying whatever our food or activity is – user1938107 Mar 11 '14 at 7:34
up vote 15 down vote accepted

There are many events one might hold to benefit a particular research effort, for which it is usual to provide at least coffee, fruit, and pastries (at least at my school), sometimes more:

  • You invite a researcher to visit your university and give a talk about his latest work, which is directly related to, and will help bootstrap, your funded research.
  • A major goal defined in your grant is to publicize a particular bit of research. You hold an open house and invite visitors from industry and academia to disseminate the results of your research.
  • A goal of your research is to develop certain tools and methods and then publicize them. You hold a workshop or "summer camp" for grad students from other universities to teach them how to use the methods/tools you've developed for your research and get their feedback.
  • You have a collaborator at another location working on this research effort with you. He visits your university once a year for a project meeting, including lunch.

Depending on the nature of the project and the funding, one or more of these may be an appropriate use of funds. Generally, to be permissible, it must be for an event that directly contributes to the goals of a specific research effort (not e.g. a department event). Sometimes, the grant is given explicitly to host such an event (such as a workshop or summer camp).

(Obviously: follow the rules from the university and the funding source about how the money may be spent. The NSF, for example, has very specific guidelines on the subject.)

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so it seems that all of the guidelines are related to providing some sort of light meals or snacks? Do you have suggestions on cost wise, since coffee for 2 students vs 100 is a big difference, but i could see from your answer it can make sense. What about "including lunch" having a difference from 50 dollar steak or 10 dollar sandwich. – user1938107 Mar 11 '14 at 7:37
my situation for "following the rules" is that im not in the states anymore, and I am looking for help on the ethical aspect, since there doesnt seem to be much of a strict rule on the food and meeting situation for my funding – user1938107 Mar 11 '14 at 7:38
Well, I only have US experience; but I think what these have in common is, "the meal/meeting is actually a part of work towards the funded research, not the entertainment." If there are no official guidelines and no country/university-specific norms, that's what I'd follow. (I can't think of any scenario where a funded research meeting calls for a steak, let me know if you think of one :) ) – ff524 Mar 11 '14 at 7:48
If we're taking about paying for regular meals while traveling (rather than providing food for a meeting or event you are hosting), I think the rule on cost is "be reasonable and don't spend more than you usually would just because the grant is paying for it" – ff524 Mar 11 '14 at 7:59
im not sure when it 'calls' for a steak, but I have been at them were I was bought a steak, and sushi, and a few other over the top situations. Maybe it has to do with not being able to pay someone for a collaboration and instead buy them nice things? Maybe its like a academic prostitute – user1938107 Mar 13 '14 at 0:10

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