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Greetings, folks,

I had mixed reactions to this article.

A bit of background on me: I'm a government employee, a scientist working at one of your national laboratories. (And I mean that ... the way I view it, in the final analysis, I work for you. Erm, that assumes you're an American reading this. Otherwise, nevermind.) I do much of my work on computer via simulations, but a significant fraction of it is spent in the lab.

Many of the items put on the government credit cards are silly, dumb, or just plain fraudulant. I won't argue about that; people are people, after all, and in any group that large there will be some bad apples.

On the other hand ... no context was really provided for some of the articles in question. LEGOs to teach robotics? Sounds really stupid ... until you check out some of LEGO's more recent product offerings. Seems to me you could do a pretty good Intro to Robotics course using some of their stuff, and as it's designed to be rapidly reconfigurable as well as tough, well, it doesn't actually sound all that silly to me.

The deer head? Beats me. But again, that doesn't mean there isn't a good reason for it. Hunter education classes? *shrug*

At my lab, we have "laboratory" credit cards, but the bills come to the employees, and they're generally used for things like travel and such so we're not out-of-pocket until the lab gets around to processing our travel expense reports. (As that can take up to 6 weeks, having a 2-month grace period is helpful.)

But we don't have cards like the ones the article talks about.

It's really interesting how that has repercussions in everyday work. For instance, say I need an assortment of relatively straight, low-loss dielectric rods for a microwave measurement. In other words, plastic rods of various diameters. Know where to go to get a good assortment? Try a local hobby shop. Oh, and I'll need some thin, high-strength, fairly hydrophobic line to support the rods. 4lb fishing line works well for this, as a matter of fact. So we're talking about $10 at the local hobby shop, and $5 at the local rod-and-reel, for the parts to make a rather important measurement on a $50k piece of hardware. (Don't laugh; a lot of science really does work out like this.)

Now, here's the fun part. If I want the lab to pay for this directly, I have to get a price quote for the parts (which means a visit to the hobby shop in person to verify the stock items), make *two* purchase orders up (one for each vendor, of course), wait for Purchasing to actually assign the orders (meanwhile keeping one's fingers crossed that they won't be a pain about sole-sourcing the items), wait for the stores to figure out what to do with the POs, and hopefully in a week or so be able to go out a second time and pick up the parts as a will-call.

Or, instead, I could pay the money myself and go for a reimbursement ... and I should actually ask for mileage as well, since it's my car I'm taking around to these places. But anyway, now I get to fill out various forms, make copies of everything, write justifications as to why I didn't generate POs, and so forth. Either way, I wind up needing to involve, at the least, my group leader, my division office, a purcashing rep, an accounts payable rep, and probably a few other people I'm forgetting. All of whom are earning, probably, $25 - $50 an hour *not* including benefits.

Now, how much money have we spent here all-told? And how much time have we wasted? Or would it have been better to let me just put it on a credit card - to be paid directly by the lab - and toss in a few gallons in my tank to account for the fuel. (I'll spot the lab the wear-and-tear.) But then (horrors) the credit card will show TAXPAYER'S MONEY being spent at A HOBBY SHOP and A SPORTING-GOODS STORE!!!

Typically, I wind up just eating the $15, gas and mileage for the sake of getting the measurements done, because it's not worth the pain; but that doesn't make me exactly feel warm and fuzzy. And, frankly, it's not fair to me; but I also don't really feel good about wasting half a day on the d**n paperwork, when I could have gotten the measurement done and been on to the next experiment. But I figure, between this sort of stuff and utterly unrealistic travel reimbursements, I wind up being out about $100 a month. And I know I'm not even close to the only researcher here who winds up doing this sort of thing.

(sad smile) Of course, the lab actually winds up "winning" in this case, don't they?

So, you tell me. Are government credit cards worth it? I don't know. But at some point, the "hassle factors" get to even the most dedicated employees. That much I do know.


- Lewellen180
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