CONTACT: Stanford University News Service (650) 723-2558

Faculty Senate approves conflict of interest policy

STANFORD -- After 18 months of development, Stanford has a new policy governing conflict of interest and commitment that establishes standards of allegiance for faculty and spells out situations that compromise integrity.

The Faculty Senate on Thursday, April 14, voted with two nays to endorse the policy, unanimously proposed by the Committee on Research.

The committee still must do some minor "wordsmithing" on the document. After this is done - probably toward the end of spring quarter - the final version will be published in Campus Report.

The section dealing with intellectual property rights already has been discussed by the Board of Trustees' Audit Committee and will be reviewed by the full board in June. The policy is expected to go into effect Sept. 1.

As happened during the senate's first discussion of the issue March 31, much of this second discussion focused on section 5, "Disclosure and ownership of intellectual property," which the committee revised April 11.

As adopted, the policy states that the university will take title to inventions and patented software developed by faculty using university resources, but will leave ownership of copyrighted materials and software with the creator, unless contractual obligations specify otherwise.

Senate discussion became contentious at times, with biological sciences Professor Craig Heller, chair of the Committee on Research, telling a faculty colleague it was "grossly unfair" to suggest that the revision had not been carefully considered.

"To misconstruct the response of the committee to the computer science faculty objections as indicating that the document is poorly thought out," Heller said, "is grossly unfair." Heller's emotional remark, coming just before the vote, seemed to clinch the lopsided tally of 26-2.

Policy summary

The new policy's key provisions:

The dean of each school will review and approve exceptions to the policy, reporting all such exception to the dean of research, and establish procedures to ensure timely review of the disclosures. The dean of research is responsible for interpretation and overall coordination of the policy, and the provost will consider appeals in consultation with the Advisory Board.

Discussion: intellectual property rights

Much of the senate debate centered on the intellectual property rights provision. Responding to concerns about software raised at the March 31 meeting and separately by the computer science faculty, the committee shifted the basis for disclosure and ownership of software from "device-like" and "book-like" to software that is patentable versus only copyrightable.

Richard Zare, chemistry, launched the discussion with an amendment to approve the rest of the document, but send the intellectual property rights provision back to committee to be modified and resubmitted next year.

His purpose, he said, was not so much to reject it as to seek broader consideration of the section's controversial aspects.

Zare said he did not oppose provisions for university ownership of patents, but he was bothered, he said, that the policy would treat differently faculty products that are potentially equal in value.

"It seems to say that 'technology' is not 'scholarship,' " Zare said. "Many faculty find this distinction not only logically inconsistent, but also insulting."

Conflict of interest is related to "dollars," not the type of accomplishment being exploited, he said. "We should try to see if this section of the policy can be reframed to meet the problem of conflict of interest without introducing divisive distinctions between different groups of faculty."

Heller responded that the committee favored a policy that could be applied to all intellectual property, but that such a policy would be contrary to academic freedom. He said he doubted that the current Committee on Research could develop "a different way of dealing with this problem."

Heller also disagreed with Zare's idea that the policy discriminates against some faculty.

The committee recognizes, Heller said, that a conflict of interest can occur if the product of a faculty member's creativity can be commercialized.

"Our concern was to develop a means of dealing with this problem, and we come up short when it comes to traditional works of expression such as books and articles." In fact, conflict of commitment may be more of a problem in these cases than conflict of interest, he said.

Heller said he understood that civil engineering Professor Boyd Paulson, chair of the Committee on Academic Computing and Information Systems, was pleased with the change in section 5.

The point of the intellectual property provision, Heller said, is to prevent a faculty member who receives millions of dollars in research grants and uses university facilities from claiming that he or she "got an idea in the shower," developed it using gift funds and now wants to give it to his or her own company.

That situation "puts the university in a very vulnerable position," he said.

President Gerhard Casper sought to emphasize the difference between patents and copyrights. A patent holder, he said, "has a right to exploit exclusively for a period of time something that nobody else has." However, "if you write a book, your ideas are not protected against exploitation."

During the discussion, Heller invited comment on six of the 11 provisions not covered two weeks earlier.

Responding to a question from John Bender, English, about the cost of the policy, Heller said the deans were concerned about it. The cost of sending out and reviewing compliance forms is not known, he said, but the annual questionnaire should not require much effort. "It is not terribly onerous," he said.

Referring to the indirect-cost controversy, research committee member Steve Boxer, chemistry, told Bender that "there's a cost but also a risk," such as "not knowing about a yacht."

Several senators worried about the language of Appendix II, which set forth examples of criteria that would be used in evaluating disclosures. After much wrangling, Heller suggested that it be eliminated from the document. The senators informally agreed.

At about 5:20 p.m., acting senate chair Tony Siegman, electrical engineering, started the voting process. Just enough senators were present to meet the required quorum of 28. Recognizing the potential problem, several who appeared eager to leave stayed to complete consideration of the wide-ranging policy.

Zare's amendment to remove section 5 failed on a divided voice vote. The main motion then passed with two nays.

Senators commended Heller and his committee with a sustained round of applause instigated by Casper. And in a move not often seen, many faculty members surrounded Heller and committee members after the meeting to express more gratitude and congratulations.



This is an archived release.

This release is not available in any other form. Images mentioned in this release are not available online.
Stanford News Service has an extensive library of images, some of which may be available to you online. Direct your request by EMail to newslibrary@stanford.edu.