Conflicts of commitment

ORI Introduction to RCR: Chapter 5. Conflicts of Interest

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Conflicts of commitment arise from situations that place competing demands on researchers’ time and loyalties. At any time, a researcher might be:
  • working on one or more funded projects;
  • preparing to submit a request for a new project;
  • teaching and advising students;
  • attending professional meetings and giving lectures;
  • serving as a peer reviewer;
  • sitting on advisory boards; or
  • working as a paid consultant, officer, or employee in a private company.
Each of these activities requires time and makes demands on a researcher’s institutional commitments. Care needs to be taken to assure that these commitments do not inappropriately interfere with one another.
Allocation of time. Researchers must be careful to follow rules for the allocation of time. Federally funded researchers must follow the rules for cost accounting published by the Office of Management and Budget in a document known as Circular A-21. Most research -institutions also have rules for how researchers spend their time, particularly time serving as paid consultants, giving paid lectures, or working as an employee in a private company. At a minimum, these rules require that researchers:
  • honor time commitments they have made, such as devoting a specified percentage of time to a grant or contract;
  • refrain from charging two sources of funding for the same time; and
  • seek advice if they are unsure whether a particular commitment of time is allowed under an institution’s or the Federal Government’s policies.
Although researchers will frequently work on several projects at the same time, in the final analysis primary work obligations must be met. In addition, the time devoted to one project ordinarily cannot be billed to another.
Relationships with students. Academic researchers involved in start-up ventures often have opportunities to hire students. This puts them in a situation where they can hire their own students. As mentors, they have a primary obligation to help students develop into independent researchers. As heads of start-up companies, their primary obligation is to see promising ideas commercialized. While the two responsibilities can complement one another, they can also be in conflict. Should an individual who is both the researcher’s student and employee be advised to develop a promising idea that could lead to an independent career or to work on a more routine problem that will benefit the start-up company? Situations such as these create conflicts and should be avoided or appropriately managed.
Use of resources. Equipment and supplies purchased with public funds can easily be used to advance private research interests. While this might seem like a harmless practice, particularly if the equipment is not in constant use, unless a researcher has permission to use the equipment to support private research, this practice is not appropriate. The equipment can be used for other university work since this is allowed by the government. But it cannot be used for a personal project without permission. It also cannot be used for research that is explicitly prohibited by the Federal government, such as stem cell research using lines not authorized by the President’s policy.
Disclosure of affiliations. It is widely agreed that outside affiliations that create conflicts of interest should be listed on academic publications, but should researchers list their academic affiliations on other publications? As president or CEO of a new company, is it appropriate for a researcher to also note in the end-of-the-year financial report that she or he is also a full professor at a prestigious university? Should researchers who serve on private boards list their academic affiliation? Researchers must be careful to separate their academic or institutional work from their private work. In particular, they should not inappropriately use their institutional research affiliation to advance their private interests by implying, for example, that private work has the support of their research institution if it does not.
Representing outside entities. The results researchers commercialize in private ventures, such as drugs used in a university hospital, a software program used in an accounting office, or a consultation service for employees, might be used by their primary employer. In these cases, the researcher could be the resident expert on the goods and services in question. Each employer in this case presumably wants the best deal on the goods and services, whereas the researcher is also interested in personal profits, creating a conflict of commitment.
Since the situations described above are often not subject to specific policies or guidance, judgments about responsible conduct often rest with the researcher. In making judgments about the best way to deal with institutional conflicts, it is helpful to take into consideration:
  • how others will view your commitments and
  • the judgment of someone who has no stake in the outcome.
In addition, it is always a good idea, even if it is not required, to seek advice from an institutional official.

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