Understanding Conflicts of Interest
A conflict of interest occurs when an individual’s personal interests – family, financial, or social factors – have the potential to compromise their judgment, decisions, or actions in the workplace. Generally, a conflict of interest exists whether or not decisions are affected by the personal interest. A conflict of interest implies only the potential for bias, not a likelihood.
It is also important to note that a conflict of interest is not considered research misconduct. In fact, conflicts of interest or commitment are not inherently negative, and in many instances, conflicts may not be altogether unavoidable. For example, in pursuit of its mission, Brown encourages faculty to foster relationships not only with fellow academics and government agencies, but also with private organizations and industry partners that work to commercialize innovations and new technologies that may benefit society. In some circumstances these relationships can give rise to conflicts of interest (COI).
When it comes to conflicts of interest, appearance and perception are as important as reality. Sometimes individuals may not think that they have a conflict but others around them perceive it as such. Therefore, Brown’s COI policy requires that even potential conflicts of interest are reported so that they can be reviewed and evaluated by the University, and, if necessary, managed, reduced, or eliminated.
Many Conflicts of Interest can be managed through disclosure; some may require recusal from oversight or review responsibilities, or from making or voting on a decision.
Reporting Conflicts of Interest
Faculty, including Instructors, Lecturers, and Emeriti, as well as Post-Docs complete and/or update their COI Reporting form in InfoEd. More details on electronic COI reporting for faculty and researchers are on our website.
Researchers, including Students who are Investigators on research projects, also complete and/or update their COI Reporting form in InfoEd. More details on electronic COI reporting for researchers are on our website.
University Staff complete and/or update their COI Reporting form in Workday. Staff COI reporting is facilitated by the Office of Human Resources.
Examples of Conflicts of Interest
Being involved in the hire, admission, supervision, assessment or examination of a family member.
Participating in or making decisions regarding a business or purchasing contract that involve family members or involve an entity in which they or a family member have a financial interest or a fiduciary role.
Using or directing University resources toward an entity or venture in which they or a family member have a financial interest or a fiduciary role.
Involving subordinates or students and trainees under their direct supervision and mentorship in an outside engagement or in work with an outside entity.
Investing personally or owning stock in privately held business ventures of subordinates or students and trainees under their direct supervision and mentorship.
Accepting personal gifts and favors with a greater than $100 dollar value from a donor; current, prospective or former student or parent.
Example Research Conflicts of Interest
Scenario 1: Biomedical consulting/drug development
You consult for Big Pharma on new drugs for breast cancer and are paid $20,000 per year for your consulting work. Big Pharma is developing several drugs for cancer treatment, including one for breast cancer. Your research is in the field of breast cancer. You currently have one research grant funded by the National Cancer Institute (NCI). In this grant, you and your team are looking at a particular molecular pathway, XYZ, that could be targeted for breast cancer treatment. The breast cancer therapy that Big Pharma is developing is targeting the same molecular pathway, XYZ.
In this scenario, Big Pharma and its breast cancer drug development program could be affected by the results of your research because your research could show that this particular molecular pathway is a good or bad candidate for new breast cancer therapies. This, in turn, could affect Big Pharma’s choices about their current drug development.
This scenario is an example of a Financial Conflict of Interest (FCOI) with research. Since you have a financial interest in Big Pharma (through your consulting income), there is a real or perceived bias toward research results that are favorable for the company. Such bias may not be conscious or expressed via intentional manipulation of research data. However, even unconscious bias can affect how research is conducted, whether experiments are repeated, or how and which results are reported.
Scenario 2: NSF research and a startup company
In the course of your NSF-funded research, you discovered that one of your newly developed prototypes may be commercially viable. You file an invention disclosure with Brown Technology Innovations and the University subsequently submits a patent application. You then create a startup company with a few other researchers in the field. You hold approx. 25% equity in the company and are its Chief Scientific Officer. The company executes a license agreement with Brown for the new prototypeand related intellectual property (IP).
At the same time, you continue your NSF-funded research in which you further validate the efficacy and applicability of the prototype and related IP.
In this scenario, the results of your NSF research could impact your startup company because further research on the prototype/IP could confirm its commercial value. On the other hand, further research could also highlight potential flaws or product limitations, which, in turn, could negatively affect investor interest in your company.
This scenario is an example of a Financial Conflict of Interest (FCOI) with research. Since you have a financial interest (equity) in the company, there is a real or perceived bias toward research results that are favorable for the company. Such bias may not be conscious or expressed via intentional manipulation of research data. However, even unconscious bias can affect how research is conducted, whether experiments are repeated, or how and which results are reported.