Cain and Abel
Professor Abel in the Chemistry Department of Firefly University is collaborating with Prof. Cain in Firefly's Biology Department. Their collaborative research is yielding some very exciting results and they decide to form HotChem, a company they hope will be able to market the results of their research. In doing so, they hire Dr. Richard Olson, a long time colleague at Venus University to become President of the company. Dr. Cain becomes the Chief Scientific Officer and Professor Abel the Vice President for Business Development. They are both listed as Officers of HotChem. Cain and Abel have not disclosed to the university their relationship with, let alone co-ownership of, the company.
As time goes by, HotChem is able to attract significant amounts of federal and nonfederal sponsored research funding as well as venture capital funding. In an effort to maximize their research capacity, HotChem issues subcontracts to Firefly University, one each with Cain and Able as Firefly's principal investigator. Everything seems to be working out well for all concerned. The relationship with Firefly is enhancing HotChem's funding proposals and helps tremendously in attracting a steady stream of funding. Firefly is obtaining sponsored funding through the subcontracts which enables the university to buy new equipment, place graduate students on exciting projects, hire two post-docs, and recover F&A costs.
Ray Feldman, Director of the Technology Transfer Office, discovers the relationship while reviewing documents pertaining to an invention disclosed to him by Cain and Abel. Feldman decides to inquire discreetly into Cain's and Abel's relationship with HotChem. He is friendly with the Chairs of both the Chemistry and Biology Departments. Feldman learns that they were vaguely aware of HotChem, but they were not concerned because Cain and Abel were active researchers, fulfilled their teaching responsibilities, advised students, and participated in committees. Feldman remained concerned, but then thought it best to drop the matter because he could see a lot of potential both for the company and, in the long run for the university. After all, if Cain and Abel's own departments were supporting them, then why should he raise any issues that could destroy successes Firefly could have in potential licensing to and obtaining additional sponsored funding from HotChem.
Interests of the Affected Parties
Profs. Cain and Abel have dual interests in seeing their company succeed and maximizing the sponsored funding. They can increase their personal income through HotChem's success. Having subcontracts issued by HotChem means they can provide research opportunities for their graduate students and post-docs as well as enhance their own resumes.
The graduate students have the opportunity to work on exciting research projects and also may have potential employment opportunities with HotChem.
Feldman wishes to maximize invention licensing opportunities as this will help the university financially and get valuable inventions to the marketplace. Increasing licensing activity not only partially fulfills the mission of his office, but successful licensing also adds to his prestige.
Firefly University has an interest in supporting its graduate students, increasing sponsored funding, maximizing invention licensing. It needs to ensure that its policies are followed, and to ensure that research is performed ethically and without the possible taint of inappropriate conduct. It also needs to send the message to all concerned that it will apply its policies consistently.
This case presents a situation in which all concerned will benefit financially by ignoring the conflict of interest. It is crucial to remember that this is an incomplete view of the situation and even on financial grounds is very short-sighted. What we actually have is a case in which all concerned would argue that they have noble intentions, but they are in reality acting almost strictly to promote their own self-interest.
Cain and Abel have sacrificed their integrity for financial benefit. They are violating the university's conflict of interest policy and have knowingly not disclosed their relationship with HotChem. They are justifying their actions in thinking that they are acting in everyone's best interest, but in reality, through their actions, they are jeopardizing the interests of Firefly University, their primary employer.
Feldman is also acting in his own self-interest. He knows that Cain and Abel have violated the university's policy, but chooses to justify taking no appropriate action because doing so could impede progress in executing licenses and sponsored project agreements.
Cain, Abel, and Feldman are acting as though the university's policies
are fine to follow when it is convenient to do so. This attitude, no matter
if it is falsely justified with noble intentions, is an invitation to disaster.
As members of a community, we have the responsibility to act in accordance
with community standards, or work through legitimate means to change standards
as may be necessary.
Consequences of Actions
Cain and Abel have ignored the potential for negative consequences. They simply see everyone benefiting from their founding of and continuing relationship with HotChem, as well as the relationship they have established between HotChem and Firefly. What they have failed to see and/or chosen to ignore is that discovery of their conflict of interest would likely result in publications having to be withdrawn, sponsored funding terminated or not renewed, and their research program tainted with suspicion in they eyes of the scientific community and general public.
Feldman's actions also have negative implications. As a university representative, Feldman inaction implies that the situation is acceptable. His inaction also conveys the message that policies will be applied unevenly or inconsistently. That would almost surely result in faculty ignoring policies or regarding them with disdain. The logical extension would be a growing number of people following Cain's and Abel's example and respecting policies only when it is convenient or when the policies serve their needs.
This case really boils down to a simple situation. Three people (Cain, Abel, and Feldman) have all made a conscious decision to ignore and violate Firefly University's conflict of interest policy. Cain and Abel have an obligation to respect the interests of the university by disclosing real or potential conflicts, and then to accept the decisions made by the university with regard to appropriately managing the conflict. Feldman's ethical responsibility is to follow and implement university policy. He has the clear obligation to report problems to the appropriate university official, and his unilateral decision to sweep this matter under the rug was a clear violation of his duties. What each of the three individuals is forgetting is that this matter is very likely to become known since universities are open communities and these matters generally are revealed in one way or another. The implications for each are serious and it is extremely short-sighted of them to allow greed or self-interest to outweigh their ethical responsibilities.