Academic journal article Journal of Research Administration

Key Issues in Conflict of Interest for Scientific, Engineering, and Educational Research

Academic journal article Journal of Research Administration

Key Issues in Conflict of Interest for Scientific, Engineering, and Educational Research

Article excerpt

Abstract

National Science Foundation (NSF) Office of Inspector General (OIG) receives and evaluates all allegations of conflict of interest made in connection with NSF activities. This article identifies factors institutions may consider in developing a conflict of interest policy by discussing NSF's requirements, expectations, and institutional responsibilities, while highlighting these issues with case examples. A parallel is also made between these expectations and NSF internal processes for its own employees.

Introduction

Conflict of interest (COI) issues are gaining increased attention due to concerns about the objectivity with which research is conducted or is influenced by financial support and other external influences. National Science Foundation (NSF) Office of Inspector General (OIG) receives and evaluates all allegations of conflict of interest made in connection with NSF activities. The allegations we investigate have principally focused on issues related to institutions involved in technology transfer, reviewer conflicts, ineffective institutional COI policies, and university researchers involved in outside companies that obtain Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) grants and our investigations have resulted in actions against institutions and sanctions against individuals. Through the investigation of these allegations, we have also gained perspective on how conflict of interest and perceived conflict of interest issues affect NSF and its awardees.

On a basic level, conflict of interest deals with perceived or actual bias. Such bias may erode the foundation of scientific research, which rests on a bedrock of impartiality. Unmanagcd conflict of interest may call into question the validity and weight of data or the integrity and reputation of the principal investigator (PI) or institution. The public, Congress, other Federal agencies, and the scientific community rely on and need to trust the findings and the quality of data resulting from Federally funded research.

For this reason, NSF requires that recipients of its funding manage conflict of interest. Properly disclosing and managing conflict of interest goes a long way to dispelling perceived bias in research. However, deciding how to manage conflict of interest is a difficult task. There is little information to help institutions identify, much less address, conflict of interest. This article seeks to identify factors institutions may consider in developing a conflict of interest policy by discussing NSF's requirements, expectations, and institutional responsibilities, while highlighting these issues with case examples. The parallel between these expectations and NSF processes for its own employees and reviewers is also discussed.

What Is a Conflict of Interest?

There are many definitions of conflict of interest. Conflict of interest may concern individual or institutional financial interest, collaborations, commitments and relationships, and can broadly be defined as:

A conflict of interest is when one's actual or imputed interest compromises or appears to compromise one's ability to impartially perform one's duty.

NSF focuses on collaboration, commitment, and financial interest with regard to its reviewers and employees. It focuses on financial interest for investigators participating in NSF funded activities.

NSF requires awardee institutions to have a conflict of interest policy in place for its investigators as described in NSF Grant Policy Manual (GPM) section 510. It focuses on financial issues and defines a conflict of interest as:

a significant financial interest that could directly and significantly affect the design, conduct, or reporting of NSF-funded research or educational activities. (GPM § 510(d))

What does NSF require of its awardees regarding conflict of interest?

NSF requires each awardee institution with more than fifty employees to:

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