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CGSP discusses conflict policy

By Susan Trulove

Spectrum Volume 17 Issue 17 - January 26, 1995

The conflict of interest policy presented in its fourth draft by the Commission on Research (COR) and Commission on Graduate Studies and Policies (CGSP) Joint Committee on Academic Integrity was the subject of somewhat lively discussion at Wednesday's CGSP meeting.

Janet Johnson, chair of COR, said there is a conflict of interest policy in the Faculty Handbook; however the National Science Foundation (NSF) is requiring stricter guidelines and a plan for managing the policy and responding to violations.

Joe Merola, CGSP chair, pointed out, "The actual dollar amount that triggers a conflict of interest is very minimal --only $5,000 interest in a company that contracts with the university."

"When we're talking about a GM or IBM, $5,000 is an inconsequential amount," said Reginald Mitchiner.

Merola said the NSF requires disclosure of a conflict if there is a $5,000 or five-percent interest, whichever is lower, while the commonwealth requires disclosure if there is a three-percent interest. Therefore, the proposed policy calls for disclosure if there is $5,000 or three percent interest.

Johnson said the NSF is adamant that $5,000 be the guideline.

"That will trigger a lot of disclosures or (cases of) ignoring it," said Mitchiner.

"I doubt it will be ignored," said Johnson. "There may be a lot of disclosures."

Merola said some universities are requiring blanket disclosures by all principal investigators, "but we decided to do it on a case-by-case basis so that the possibility of conflict will not be ignored or overlooked. Once an interest is disclosed, a department may decide there is not a conflict."

Asked whether the policy could apply to graduate students, Merola said yes, "It applies to anybody who has control over the research, including reporting results, but the PI is responsible for making sure all of the people involved in a project are covered."

What about a GE Fellowship, for example? Johnson said a fellowship is not ownership.

A direct salary from a company, as opposed to a salary through the university, does represent an interest in a company. So, Mitchiner pointed out, "If GM (for example) sends someone back to school and they come with a GM project, is there a conflict?"

"There are financial pursestrings that could push the ethics...skew how results are interpreted," Merola said.

"If the study is whether saddlebag gas tanks on trucks explode on impact, where the results could affect the stock value, there is a conflict," John Burton agreed.

"But (the conflict of interest policy) does not discuss research findings," Mitchiner said.

"It is implied that there is danger that financial interest could impact findings or project design so that things are overlooked," Merola said. "There is no bar to doing the research so long as potential conflicts are addressed. For example, the GM-funded student may require independent oversight."

Mitchiner said that employment by a sponsor might not be perceived as a conflict of interest in order to start the process that would address the conflict.

Johnson agreed, "You are right. It has to be a self-started procedure."

Merola added, "A certain amount of education goes along with bringing guidelines to the faculty."

CGSP members were encouraged to share the draft with their colleagues. The university must adopt a policy by the end of the academic year to meet the NSF deadline.

In other business, the commission endorsed the research-faculty appointments proposal passed by COR.

Len Peters will report at the next meeting on his meetings with the deans on the subject of summer tuition. This summer's requirement of only one credit registration for graduate students who are not taking courses is a move toward elimination of tuition, Merola explained.

Ron Johnson asked for a status report on Graduate School meetings with the colleges on the IFS policy "so we can get an indication of what the policy will look like next year."