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Committee on Research discusses conflict of interest, commitment

STANFORD -- Links between sponsored projects and gift support from the same entities should be more closely monitored, a Medical School staff member told the Committee on Research during a sparsely attended open meeting Monday, May 10.

Staged to collect community opinion on a proposed - and potentially controversial - new policy on faculty conflict of interest and conflict of commitment (see the May 5 Campus Report), the meeting drew only about 15 faculty and staff members.

Faculty members did not question the basic tenet of the proposed policy - that outside activities should not interfere with faculty members' primary responsibilities to Stanford. However, they did question the proposed annual mechanism for certifying compliance with the conflict of commitment and interest policies.

The draft document sets forth guidelines that would limit the nature of outside consulting and professional activities, and would require faculty to disclose any proposed gifts that would directly benefit their teaching or research activities from entities in which they have a financial interest.

Perhaps the most candid warning of the session came from staff member Johanna Lederer, a financial analyst in the Department of Medicine's administration office and former longtime administrative assistant in the division of infectious diseases.

Lederer said that university officials should examine potential conflicts that can be created when companies make repeated gifts to principal investigators who are carrying out research under contract to them.

"That raises questions," she said, adding that the Sponsored Projects Office and the Office of Development should coordinate efforts so that "disclosures would surface."

Aside from the inherent conflict of interest, she said after the meeting that researchers can use such an arrangement to avoid paying indirect costs to the university. Sponsored research grants and contracts carry an overhead charge, but gifts do not, a situation that has been under discussion by the university's senior officers in recent years.

Asked by the committee if his office shares information with the Office of Development, Sponsored Projects Director Fred Bentley said that Development receives lists of research proposals, but there is no communication in the other direction.

School discretion

Addressing proposed language that would require faculty members to have a "significant presence on campus," Lederer suggested that the word "significant" should be defined so that it would have "teeth."

Committee Chair Craig Heller, biological sciences, said he preferred to leave it up to the discretion of each school to decide specifics. Uniform standards for the entire university would not be workable, he said.

Professor Joseph Goodman, electrical engineering, said he appreciated that the draft document allows flexibility by school. What constitutes conflict of commitment may vary from one to another, he said. He questioned whether department chairs had sufficient power to do anything if they discovered conflicts of commitment.

Heller responded that that would vary from one department to another, but the individual who controls space and salary "has a lot of power."

The intent of the proposed policy, Heller said, is give the department chair or dean a basis for dealing with complaints, but "not to put time clocks on the wall."

"Our approach was not to generate a new set of rules and regulations and bureaucracy," he said. "Nobody wants more bureaucracy and more paperwork."

"We set about to create a policy document and compliance process that is primarily educational and conscience arousing in nature," Heller said. "We are not so much setting rules as we are setting standards against which individual situations of behavior can be compared and evaluated," he said.

President Gerhard Casper asked the committee to take up the review, Heller said, because Stanford's policies on the subject were "scattered and fragmentary, and not adequate to deal with controversies." (Casper was not at Monday's meeting.)

Compliance forms

In the current draft, each dean could set up a certification system unique to his or her school. "In some cases, that system might be delegation of responsibility to the department chairs, to a schoolwide faculty committee or to an associate dean," Heller said. The draft also provides that faculty members could have compliance reports reviewed exclusively by their dean.

Committee member Ross Shachter, engineering-economic systems, said the committee tried to make the compliance form easy for faculty to fill out but detailed enough to reveal problems. It also should be easy to review, he said.

Heller said that Stanford's proposed form was "pretty minimal in terms of paperwork required," especially when compared to Harvard's.

Goodman told the committee he had noticed that the form did not require disclosure of all consulting arrangements.

Shachter responded that the fact of consulting was not an issue, but rather the amount of it. Other issues, such as potential conflicts involving gifts, were addressed specifically, he said.

Committee member Steve Boxer, chemistry, agreed with Shachter. "I'm a fairly strong advocate of personal privacy in matters that don't need to be looked into," he said. But beyond a certain point, these issues "absolutely [are] the university's business."

Boxer said the new policy is "very much in the spirit of the university's Honor Code."

As for who should review the disclosure forms, Boxer said he thought that should occur at the "university" level rather than in the department.

In most departments, the chairmanship rotates quickly, he said, and "I am personally concerned about all this information churning about." In addition, the chair may be "too close to the individual. We need a much less involved group," he said.

Boxer suggested a review committee that could exercise judgment and a historic sense of what's appropriate. Elaborating after the meeting, he suggested as a model the committees that monitor use of animals and human subjects in research.

Ownership of inventions

In the area of ownership of inventions, committee members asked for audience reaction to their decision to retreat from an earlier idea of requiring that ownership of all inventions created with use of Stanford resources would vest with the university. As it now stands, inventions created by faculty or staff with use of gift funds or other non-sponsored university resources belong to the individual inventor.

Associate Dean of Research Pat Devaney said she did not know of any other universities that did not claim ownership.

A medical faculty member said that that policy was "one of the great, amazing, positive things about Stanford," and provided a definite edge in recruiting.

Heller said after the meeting that he was disappointed by the low turnout, but pleased that community members offered "thoughtful points of view."

He said he considers the document "very reasonable. The reporting is not onerous, and I think most people will realize that these are the sorts of things the university is going to have to do. It's not up to us alone; there are pressures from outside.

"If we are concerned with being an institution of public trust," Heller said, "we have to pay attention to how we can guarantee that we're doing the right thing."

Much of the policy is aimed at raising consciousness, he said. "People are basically pretty ethical and honest, but it is possible to get into a conflict situation without being aware of it."

Heller will present the proposed policy to the Faculty Senate on May 27 for discussion.



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