The NSF should fund conference daycare

I was pleased to see that this year’s Joint Mathematics Meetings in San Diego offers subsidized on-site childcare for participants in the meeting.  But even after the subsidy, it isn’t exactly cheap; at $14/hour, a mathematician who wanted to attend the conference full-time would easily spend over $300 on childcare.

Can you use your NSF grant to cover this $300?  Nope:

Can NSF award funds be used for travel and associated dependent-care expenses for dependents of individuals funded on an NSF award?

NSF award funds may not be used for domestic travel costs or associated dependent-care expenses for individuals traveling on NSF award funds. Travel costs associated with dependents may be allowable for International travel in accordance with Award and Administration Guide Chapter V.B.4, which contains several stipulations, including that travel must be continuous for a period of six months or more.

What about organizers of NSF-funded conferences?  Can we offer to use NSF money to cover childcare costs for attending mathematicians?  That’s another nope:

Can conference/workshop awards or travel funds from research awards be used to support child care at conferences and workshops?

NSF award funds may not be used to pay for travel costs or expenses related to onsite care (e.g., daycare) for dependents of participants at NSF-sponsored conferences and workshops. NSF-sponsored conferences and workshops are encouraged to consider child-care services to ease the burden on attendees, but the costs of such services are the responsibility of those that choose to utilize the accommodations.

For me to go to a conference requires me to buy a plane ticket and book a hotel room.  NSF wants me to go to conferences, so they allow me to charge these unavoidable expenses to my grant.  If I’m a single parent of a 1-year-old child, going to a conference requires me to have childcare available at the conference location.  No childcare means I don’t go to the conference.  If NSF is willing to pay two hundred bucks a night for my hotel room, why not a hundred bucks a day for childcare?

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23 thoughts on “The NSF should fund conference daycare

  1. And people wonder why there aren’t more women in math. In industry, they don’t provide daycare but they pay you enough to afford a sitter.

  2. David Savitt says:

    I found this out when we applied for the Mathcamp Research in Pairs grant. We wanted to include child-care expenses, so that we could potentially do a better job attracting participants with child-care responsibilities; but, evidently, it’s against the rules. Policy from the Stone Age.

  3. anon says:

    Really? Should NSF pay for clothing too, since we have to wear it if we go to the conference? And health insurance, in case we get sick while we’re there? Lately I’ve been feeling like, as a mathematician willing to pay out-of-pocket for small expenses ($300 is NOT that much, consider that your department *routinely* compels hundreds or thousands of undergrads to pay that order of magnitude for calculus textbooks) I’m the odd one out. I look around me and I see people applying for grants for things like a 1-and-a-half-hour car trip to a city in the same state. It’s ridiculous. How about we get rid of all these grants altogether and instead redistribute that money to mathematicians’ paychecks.

  4. jenfns says:

    When I was the single parent of a young child, I was luck enough to have my parents come to stay with him when I traveled to the Arizona Winter School. I’m married now, but it is still a huge impediment for me when I travel. It costs me significant personal funds, either for help at home as my husband cannot drive or for a traveling nanny. Last time I traveled, I needed both since the youngest was still nursing. As a result, I travel much less than I should.

    That said, I also find that it is much nicer to travel without the children as I get a chance to focus on work more intensely without having to worry about dinner and bedtime.

  5. Oy. The joys of patronage models?

  6. jenfns says:

    An increased salary is not a substitute for reimbursing business expenses. The employee is not taxed for reimbursements as they are not compensation for work but a cost for the employer. That said, it would be nice if the university/grant process were structured differently.
    I guess the question is whether it should be a cost of the employer to pay for travelling employees’ childcare. Since our society does in fact have a vested interest in successful professional women bearing and raising children, I think that the answer should be yes.

  7. Noah Snyder says:

    This seems like it would be low-lying fruit for the president’s NSF career-life balance initiative.

    Does anyone know if not funding child care for conferences is something that’s decided at the level of the NSF, or whether there’s direct legislative constraints?

  8. Richard Séguin says:

    Business expenses are deductions on your tax return (Schedule A) and not tax credits. So, even if the cost of child care is a valid deduction (I haven’t checked), you retrieve only a fraction of the cost via taxes. And, as jenfins pointed out, increased salary to cover the cost of things like child care is taxed, so you lose out there too. Their conclusion that expense reimbursement is the only way to go is absolutely correct.

  9. Richard Séguin says:

    Since I was a kid, society has changed radically and many people, including single people, live far from other family members, and that is especially so for those in academia. For those in academia, it is usually a necessity. The problem is that our institutions are living in the past and have not changed to accomodate these social changes. Even current medical practice still seems to assume, erroneously, that there is always someone else in the home or a relative living nearby that can help with a patient when they’re sick.

    I haven’t been in academia for a long time (in fact I’m retired) but I’m still active and I’ve been recently encouraged to go to some conferences and have been told in a couple of cases that NSF travel money might be available for me. I’m single though with a dog and with no nearby relatives, and although 24 hour/day care for a dog is probably not quite as expensive as all-day day care for a kid, it’s still expensive, and that has been one of the factors in declining to go. So, I completely sympathize with singles in academia with kids.

  10. anon says:

    Jordan, since you are so passionate about helping people with education/research expenses, can you tell us what you steps you have taken to wean your own math department away from requiring undergrads to pay hundreds of dollars apiece for calculus textbooks? Y’know, so that you can set an example for others of us.

  11. Ezra Getzler says:

    See Principles of Federal Appropriation Law, 3rd Edition, Volume 1, page 4-44

  12. JSE says:

    Wow, Ezra, good find. This 1992 ruling from the Comptroller General’s office, which holds that child care is not an “actual and necessary expense” (!) seems relevant:

    Click to access 503816.pdf

  13. Rob H. says:

    I’m unsure what role Jordan played, but UW–Madison now has in-house calculus notes that cost students $17. Of course, anon, the situation you bring up is not perfectly analogous; there is no regulation in place forbidding departments from helping students by lowering textbook costs.

  14. Ezra Getzler says:

    Except it would be more accurate here to use the term “law”, and not “regulation”….

  15. David Savitt says:

    What about item (3) on page 4-50, though?

  16. Bobito says:

    There’s nothing about your argument peculiar to the profession of scientist. There are many professions which require travel and that are therefore complicated to occupy if one has children. The NSF is not the right organ to address this problem. Rather, there should be coherent global governmental programs to facilitate access to childcare for working parents.

  17. anon says:

    “there is no regulation in place forbidding departments from helping students by lowering textbook costs”

    Which makes it all the more egregious that most of our departments completely leave the students to the wolves. If karma is real, then we deserve every funding cut the NSF gets.

    Did not know that UW-Madison has switched to in-house notes. That is very 21st century and I’m jealous. Alright, in that case, Jordan and his dept are officially qualified to make budget suggestions for mathematics.

  18. David Savitt says:

    I agree with your first two sentences, but disagree strongly with the rest. We’d never get anywhere if we tried to solve every problem from the top down in the ideal way. You make progress where you can, build towards a society-wide consensus, and then hope to obtain a universal solution. Now, as Ezra has pointed out, there may be statutory reasons that one can’t start with NSF; and so at the U.S. federal level one may have to start higher.

  19. Bobito says:

    Of course you are right that one has to chip away at what one cannot possibly achieve globally. Still, the principal mission of the NSF is to fund scientific research per se. Arranging for childcare for the children of funded scientists while they travel starts to be rather far from the main objective and it seems there should be better mechanisms for addressing this problem that also don’t have the consequence of providing a for a certain elite (research scientists) a social support that should be provided quite a lot more broadly and probably preferentially to others. Is the NSF administratively competent to judge the merits of the claim that a given researcher needs childcare? Should it be spending its resources processing this sort of claim?

    Also, it is not at all clear that paying for care of children brought to the conference is the best way to deal with the problem – by the way, is the travel of the children also to be covered? Perhaps it is better, from the perspective of optimizing the use of resources, if the parents of small children don’t go to many conferences, and the money they, and their children, would use for travel and childcare, is used to fund other researchers. I am a parent of several small children – with even one of them along for the ride it would be difficult to participate fully in a conference – there’d be no way to go to dinner, for example – after leaving the kid with a strange caregiver in a strange place all day (while attending talks) someone who would then leave them with a babysitter while going out to dinner is not really taking care of the child as it needs. It seems likely that the parent ends up participating in the conference halfway, and at an elevated cost – at any rate this was my experience when I had babies in the house – even attending conferences organized in my own city. Better to fund two researchers who don’t need childcare expenses covered and who will participate fully. Perhaps it should be viewed as a necessary consequence of having children that during the years while they are small one cannot go to many scientific conferences – and he unwiling to make that trade off should not have children or should quit going to scientific conferences. There are many related issues – suppose one has to care for one’s paraplegic brother or one’s parent with Alzheimer’s – these things effectively prevent travel to conferences too – should the NSF be the agency that funds alternative care arrangmennets while the caregiving scientist attends a conference? What is qualitatively different about these examples and that of small children?

  20. David Savitt says:

    On the other hand NSF usually doesn’t directly organize conferences or make decisions about how to support individual participants attending a meeting. It provides grants to scientists to organize conferences, and to a large degree leaves it to the discretion of scientists how that money would be best spent to achieve their intellectual goals for the meeting. Difference scientists take radically different approaches to organizing conferences (and some are more competent at it than others; few of us have any particular expertise or training in it). So I’m basically unconvinced — why shouldn’t this be in my discretion as an organizer? If an invited speaker tells me that they’d like to come, but because of scheduling constraints their flight will end up costing $500 more than expected, it’s at my discretion whether it’s scientifically worthwhile to support the expense. I’d like that same discretion to respond to an invitee who could only attend if $300 of childcare is provided.

    Indeed as a conference organizer I *have* provided support (both travel and lodging) for the caretaker of a disabled participant. But as to what’s qualitatively different about these other examples, sure, abstractly they’re all analogous. But we do live in the real world here — the point is to make progress on the serious broader problem that the academic career timeline is systematically motherhood-unfriendly.

  21. This is a great opportunity to showcase the enlightened practices of my employer. UT’s faculty travel grant has child care as an allowable expense.

  22. […] experience with, because neither of us has reproduced, but you can read more about it in many other places. Plenty of other conferences do it (e.g., Society for Molecular Biology and Evolution, […]

  23. Jodecy says:

    It was dark when I woke. This is a ray of sunsnihe.

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