B-240492, Feb 15, 1991, 70 COMP.Gen. 261

B-240492: Feb 15, 1991

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CIVILIAN PERSONNEL - Travel - Travel expenses - Reimbursement - Official business - Determination Candidates for National Institutes of Health's (NIH) Intramural Research Training Award (IRTA) Program may be paid for travel expenses incurred in attending preselection interviews since NIH determines whether the candidates are qualified and the interviews are necessary to determine their qualifications and adaptability for the positions. Although the successful candidates are considered to be "Fellows" under the Program and are not appointed as federal employees. National Institutes of Health - Intramural Research Training Award Program - Travel Expenses for Preselection Interviews: This decision is in response to a request for an advance decision as to whether the National Institutes of Health (NIH) may use appropriated funds to reimburse candidates for the Intramural Research Training Award (IRTA) Program for the travel expenses of preselection interviews. /1/ For the reasons stated later.

B-240492, Feb 15, 1991, 70 COMP.Gen. 261

CIVILIAN PERSONNEL - Travel - Travel expenses - Reimbursement - Official business - Determination Candidates for National Institutes of Health's (NIH) Intramural Research Training Award (IRTA) Program may be paid for travel expenses incurred in attending preselection interviews since NIH determines whether the candidates are qualified and the interviews are necessary to determine their qualifications and adaptability for the positions. Although the successful candidates are considered to be "Fellows" under the Program and are not appointed as federal employees, NIH treats the candidates in the same manner as applicants for positions in the excepted service. See Office of Personnel Management, 60 Comp.Gen. 235 (1981), and cases cited therein.

National Institutes of Health - Intramural Research Training Award Program - Travel Expenses for Preselection Interviews:

This decision is in response to a request for an advance decision as to whether the National Institutes of Health (NIH) may use appropriated funds to reimburse candidates for the Intramural Research Training Award (IRTA) Program for the travel expenses of preselection interviews. /1/ For the reasons stated later, reimbursement of the expenses is authorized.

BACKGROUND

The IRTA Program is authorized under section 405(b)(1)(C) of the Health Research Extension Act of 1985, Pub.L. No. 99-158, Sec. 2, 99 Stat. 820, 827, Nov. 20, 1985, now codified at 42 U.S.C. Sec. 284(b)(1)(C) (1988). The Program is designed to provide advanced research training to promising physicians and investigators who are predoctoral or have less than 3 years of relevant postdoctoral research experience. Individuals participating in the IRTA Program are referred to as "Fellows" and are not federal employees.

In supporting the need for reimbursement of pre-award travel expenses, NIH officials point out that the program is unique within the federal government and that a personal interview may be essential in determining the candidate's potential as a research physician or investigator, and the extent to which the candidate may benefit from and make a positive contribution to the research assignment. NIH officials also emphasize that pre-award interviews are a common and recognized part of the selection process at other fellowship - granting institutions and may be the deciding factor in the selection of an awardee from two or more candidates with similar qualifications. Agency officials also state that NIH has the sole responsibility in determining the qualifications and the selection of candidates for the IRTA Fellowship Program.

The agency reports that the predoctoral and postdoctoral trainees who are selected receive training and participate in ongoing research studies in a variety of laboratory and clinically related disciplines under the direction of NIH preceptors. The NIH Manual states that the work performed by the Predoctoral and Postdoctoral Fellows is an integral part of their training activities and is essential to their future development as independent investigators and that the work they perform constitutes a valuable service to NIH. Upon completion of the program, some of the participants may be considered for nontenured employment in the excepted service at NIH under the NIH Staff Fellowship Program. /2/

NIH officials have advised this Office that the candidates must pass a rigorous screening process, that their qualifications are carefully reviewed, that only the leading candidates for a position are requested to participate in a preselection interview, and that their research skills are well defined for work in a specific area. The NIH officials also stated that, although the candidates are not being interviewed for positions as federal employees, they are treated in the same manner as applicants for positions in the excepted service.

OPINION

The Public Health Service Act, as amended by section 405(b)(1)(C) of Pub.L. No. 99-158, cited earlier, provides that the Secretary, acting through the director of each national research institute "may conduct and support research training (i) for which fellowship support is not provided under section 288 of this title, and (ii) which is not residency training of physicians or other health professionals." The NIH established the IRTA Program based upon the provisions of this amendment.

The general rule prohibiting agencies from paying travel expenses for preemployment interviews was based on the rationale that the function of ascertaining the qualifications of prospective employees was within the jurisdiction of the then Civil Service Commission and other agencies had no authority to spend their appropriations for this function. /3/ However, we also recognized an exception to the prohibition against the payment of such travel expenses to applicants when the positions to be filled are outside the competitive service and the responsibility for determining qualifications rests with the employing agency. /4/

In later cases, we modified the general rule even further, holding that where an agency has the authority to determine the qualifications of applicants for positions, whether in the competitive service or not, that agency may pay the preemployment interview travel expenses of an applicant for employment. /5/

Here, NIH has the responsibility under the Public Health Service Act, as amended, to conduct and support research training. In order to implement this statutory provision, NIH, of necessity, is required to determine the qualifications of and select candidates for fellowship awards under the IRTA Program. The preselection interviews are a necessary agency function prior to the selection process and are essential in determining the candidates' qualifications. We do not believe that the trainees' status as "Fellows," and not employees, precludes their being entitled to payment of travel expenses to participate in preselection interviews, particularly since they are treated in the same manner as applicants for positions in the excepted service. /6/ We believe that the payment of travel expenses is a necessary adjunct to the recruiting of highly qualified individuals for the IRTA Program and is essential for NIH to successfully compete with other fellowship - granting institutions.

Accordingly, we conclude that NIH has the statutory authority to incur necessary expenses in reimbursing candidates for the travel expenses incurred in attending preselection interviews under the IRTA Program. /7/

/1/ The request was submitted by Mr. Carl A. Fretts, Acting Associate Director for Administration, NIH, Public Health Service, Department of Health and Human Services.

/2/ Para. A, Chapter 2300-320-7, NIH Manual, Oct. 1, 1989.

/3/ 31 Comp.Gen. 175 (1951); B-172279, May 20, 1971.

/4/ See 38 Comp.Gen. 483 (1959); 31 Comp.Gen. 480 (1952).

/5/ See 60 Comp.Gen. 235 (1981); 40 Comp.Gen. 221 (1960).

/6/ See Roger L. Twitchell, B-219046, Sept. 29, 1986.

/7/ See guidelines governing payment of travel expenses for preemployment interviews in subchapter 1, chapter 572, Federal Personnel Manual, Inst. 352, July 14, 1989.