What is a Conflict of Interest?
Conflicts of interest arise when two activities interact such that professional judgment in one may be, or may seem to be, influenced by the other. One example of a conflict of interest is a professor who conducts research on the genetic bases for breast cancer and who owns a company that develops and sells laboratory tests to identify genetic sequences linked to breast cancer. Because of a close connection between research and entrepreneurial activities, it is hard to imagine that the professor wouldn't have ideas for his company based on his research and that the direction of research couldn’t be influenced by company priorities.
Importantly, conflicts of interest:
• represent a state of affairs, not behavior;
• are common and often unavoidable;
• frequently involve perceptions; and
• are judged by others, not by those directly involved.
The interaction between research and significant financial interests, including compensation over $5000, ownership, or leadership positions with outside organizations, is a primary conflict of interest of concern in research ethics. Many people recognize money, or the ability to benefit financially, as a potent motivator. It is also easily understood, easily quantified and, unlike many other activities of scholars, discretionary. An overlap between financial interests and research may affect, or appear to affect, the design, conduct, or reporting of research.
A potential conflict of interest between two activities does not mean that either is inappropriate. Universities often encourage researchers to engage in activities that will make research results rapidly available to the public, including entrepreneurship.
What can I do about Conflicts of Interest?
When an actual conflict of interest, or the perception of one, exists, researchers can chose to eliminate or manage it. For example, a conflict of interest created by conducting a clinical trial on a drug and, at the same time, receiving substantial compensation as a speaker for a company with a major competing product could be eliminated by not accepting speaking engagements.
A common method to manage conflicts of interest is to disclose them. For example, an engineer who has started a company based on technology developed in her laboratory might disclose the ownership of the company when publishing on the technology in professional journals. Beyond disclosing in publications, disclosure to colleagues—other faculty, students, or staff with whom a researcher works—and to participants in clinical research is becoming more common. Disclosures allow people to assess the information provided by a professional in light of the financial interest.
In addition to disclosure, other strategies for managing conflicts of interest include recusing one’s self from decisions that would involve both research activities and the financial interest, deciding not to engage in certain activities where the two overlap, or having colleagues provide oversight.
What Rules Apply at the UW-Madison?
State and University policies require annual disclosures of outside activities from faculty members, academic staff, and principal or co-investigators on federal grants or human subjects protocols. Federal policies require the University to eliminate, minimize, or manage any potential or actual conflicts of interest between an investigator's federally funded research and significant financial interests that might reasonably appear to affect, or be affected by, the federally funded work. The Conflict of Interest Committee oversees the annual disclosure process and review of disclosures to meet those obligations. For further information on the committee’s activities, see the UW-Madison's Conflict of Interest website.