Conflicts of Interest
and Scientific Objectivity
Researchers and research institutions have a variety of financial, personal, and political interests that sometimes conflict with their professional, ethical, or legal obligations. These situations can create conflicts of interest or the appearance of conflicts of interest. This chapter discusses how conflicts of interest affect research, how they are defined, and how they should be managed. It also describes how government agencies and research institutions have responded to conflicts of interest in research and describes some cases from science.
Individual scientists and research organizations daily encounter situations where personal, financial, political, and other interests conflict with professional, ethical, or legal obligations or duties. Although conflicts of all types are a normal part of human existence, some are called “conflicts of interest” (COIs) because they involve conflicts between interests and duties. Most of the concern with COIs arises because personal interests can undermine duties relating to scientific objectivity (Shamoo 1992, 1993, Resnik 2001b). For example, a researcher with stock in a pharmaceutical company that sponsors his research overestimates the clinical significance of his research on one of the company's drugs, which drives up the price of his stock. An academic researcher in a National Institutes of Health (NIH) study section reviews a grant from a competitor in the same field (Shamoo 1993). A scientist receives orders not to publish results that are contrary to the interests of the company that funds her research. A medical journal runs an advertisement for a new drug. Other COIs may undermine other duties, such as the duty to protect human subjects. For example, a physician-researcher receives $3,000 in patient care costs per patient she recruits to be in a clinical trial. A university's institutional review board (IRB) reviews a research proposal sponsored by a company that has recently given $30 million to the university.
It is helpful to remember that a nation's ability to deal with problems, such as COIs in research, are a sign of a stable democratic society with reasonable public confidence in the system and the willingness of its population to abide by its rules. From this perspective, the national will to deal with such issues is an apparent luxury compared with the constraints presented by the poverty, limited health care, genocide, war, and corruption that exist in many other countries. Nonetheless, if a privileged society does not deal effectively with COIs in research, the erosion of public confidence in science that may occur can be extremely damaging and corrosive to democracy.