Conflicts of Interest and Time
Competing interests are a fact of life. We’re subject to, on a daily basis, the demands of family, colleagues, mentors, and those who otherwise pay our salaries and support our research. Add to this our aspirations for growth, achievement, security – whatever – and it’s no surprise that how we use our resources is in a state of constant flux. Sometimes the competition of interests rises to outright conflict. When a conflict evolves to the point of undermining professional or ethical obligations, or when it is perceived to undermine such obligations, we have a serious issue.
There are several types of ‘conflict’ to consider in science, the most important being conflict of interest (COI), conflict of effort, and conflict of conscience, as defined in Scientific Integrity (F.L. Macrina).
COIs generate the most interest for ethical conduct, as they are particularly detrimental to the confidence of others in scientific objectivity. A generalized definition of COI is “the undue use of a position or exercise of power to influence a decision for personal gain” (Scientific Integrity). Personal gain relates to things like money, space, power, and stability. Institutions are particularly concerned with financial COIs (FCOIs), wherein the conflict is related to the potential for personal gain at a financial level.
Conflict of effort represents an incongruity between the efforts stipulated through formal obligations for multiple activities and those actually expended on these or other activities. If for example a scientist has 80% effort formally allocated toward activities relevant to awarded grants, but in fact spends 50% of her time on teaching and administration, a conflict of effort exists. More subtle conflicts of effort arise when an individual takes on duties involving substantial commitment but no formal allocation of time, such as editorial board or study section activities, to the detriment of other duties.
Conflicts of conscious exist where “the convictions of an individual are allowed to override scientific merit in reaching a decision” (Scientific Integrity). Moral territory in which bias can be brought to bear includes animal research, research having the potential to affect society ‘adversely’ (e.g, work relating to the genetic quality of crops or humans), research having political dimensions (e.g, climate warming), and research having religious dimensions (e.g, species origin, evolution, or stem cells). Biases extending to gender, nationality, race, and religion, while perhaps not rising to the level of ‘conviction’, are particularly insidious and must be recognized in any decision.
Policies and Guidelines
Here is a link to Penn’s “Financial Conflicts of Interest in Research Program,” which provides an overview of policy and a variety of other relevant links: https://research.upenn.edu/compliance-and-training/fcoi/
Here is a link to the “University of Pennsylvania Policy on Conflicts of Interest Related to Research” (originally adopted as of August 24, 2012 and revised as of August 14, 2017): https://research.upenn.edu/wp-content/uploads/FCOI_Policy_Almanac_Version.pdf The policy itself is subdivided into 12 sections. The sections most important for predoctoral RCR training are: Section ii (investigator’s duty to disclose significant financial interests and travel), iii (assessment of disclosures), and iv (determination and management of FCOI).
Here is a link to Penn’s Sponsored Projects Handbook, Chapter 10 Effort Reporting: http://www.upenn.edu/researchservices/manual/sponsoredprojectshandbook.html#10/
Two textbooks provide excellent discussions of data acquisition and management. Both are electronically accessible through the Biomedical Library. These are:
Scientific Integrity, F.L. Macrina, 4th ed.
Responsible Conduct of Research, A.E. Shamoo and D.B. Resnick, 3rd ed.