The National Science Foundation questioned UC Berkeley’s use of roughly $1.9 million worth of allocated funds, saying in a recent audit report that the campus spent parts of awarded grants incorrectly on items such as senior salaries and meal expenditures.
The NSF, a federal organization that awards grants for research, audited UC Berkeley’s spending of $379 million in awards from 2010-12. It first released findings in a draft report to which the campus had an opportunity to respond. The campus’s response, along with a review of that response by the NSF, was released March 31.
“While we know that isolated instances of oversight may occur at any large organization, we are confident that a close review of the facts will show that the vast majority of the items in question were handled appropriately and were permissible under NSF policies,” said campus spokesperson Janet Gilmore.
According to the report, campus employees misspent about $15,000 in award money on meals, including $10,000 on alcohol and about $10,000 on “unreasonable travel.”
The biggest portion of the allegedly misused spending went to senior personnel salary costs, a total of roughly $1.6 million that the NSF Office of the Inspector General said exceeded salary limitations and violated its policies.
Last week, the NSF allowed Virginia Tech to use the foundation’s grants to pay about $1.5 million for senior salaries, though the office had previously deemed that the university had misspent the money on such salaries. Instead, the NSF said the audit had misinterpreted its own faculty compensation policy. Gilmore believes the situation at Virginia Tech mirrors that at UC Berkeley.
Gilmore said there were many instances where expenditures that went to a project questioned by the audit were actually allowed under NSF policy. She pointed specifically to a policy that permits entities to rebudget items after an award is made and as a project evolves.
The NSF’s partnership with UC Berkeley has yielded projects researching energy-efficient electronics, synthetic biology, cyber security and nano manufacturing, among many other fields. Its grants also support research across most science, math and technology frontiers on campus and provide for more than $84 million in Graduate Research Fellowships.
NSF staff use data analytics, results of prior audits and other information in order to select which entities to audit, according to Susan Carnohan, spokesperson for the NSF’s Office of the Inspector General. The audits aim to identify how organizations spend award money in ways that may not comply with regulations and federal requirements.
Carnohan did not comment on why UC Berkeley specifically was audited.
According to Carnohan, the next steps after the release of the audit will be the NSF working with UC Berkeley to resolve the questioned spending and setting up processes to prevent the potential future misuse of funds.
“We understand that initial (Office of the Inspector General) audit reports take a broad view and that a closer review, aided by direct information from the institution in question, can significantly alter initial findings,” Gilmore said. “We are confident that, ultimately, that will be case here.”
Contact Kate Wolffe at [email protected].