Reshaping Public Perceptions of Conflict of Interest

Among the topics discussed at the UIDP meeting last month were public perceptions relating to university researchers that engage in external activities or hold external financial interests.  There is a common belief that holding external interests necessarily means that there is a conflict of interest, and that a conflict of interest necessarily means that there is research bias or misconduct.  As a result, university researchers have sometimes been pushed into a defensive position, and come to resent questions regarding their external activities.

The purpose of current conflict of interest regulations is not to assume misconduct, however, but rather to preserve the public trust by promoting transparency.  This includes standards for disclosure and review that uphold the expectation that research results are free from bias.

Given existing public perceptions relating to external interests, the question is how to encourage productive conversation, and demonstrate that holding external interests does not necessarily mean that there is a conflict of interest, and that a conflict of interest does not necessarily mean that there is research bias or misconduct.

This can be done in part by changing the emphasis on disclosure, so it does not give the impression of an action that is done only under the duress of regulation.  There are benefits arising from the engagement of top researchers in external activities, and institutions should naturally expect such engagement of their researchers.  While these benefits have no bearing on the actual management of potential conflicts, they do serve to underscore the distinction between an external interest and a conflict of interest.

The fact that management plans for potential conflicts are proactive, rather than an indication of misconduct, should serve to increase understanding.  The last thing that anyone should want is to discourage the very relationships between university researchers and industry that provide public benefit.  The disclosure and management of potential conflicts simply serve to create a buffer between those relationships and research results.

Within the InfoEd system, by default the disclosure function refers to external interests and activities, rather than place emphasis specifically on conflict of interest, providing each institution with options regarding the framework for their own collection, management and publication of information.

Meanwhile, the conversation at UIDP with respect to conflict of interest continues.  I can provide additional information about the project, as well as contact information for the university representative, if anyone is interested in participating.

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