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University News

Conflict of interest policy shifts responsibility to U.

Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, March 22, 2012

The University recently revised its policy for faculty reporting research funding in conjunction with an updated National Institutes of Health conflict of interest regulations. The NIH rule revisions are in response to past problems involving researchers using federal funds for work that impacted companies they were personally involved in, said Provost Mark Schlissel P’15.

The NIH now requires researchers to report all significant financial interests relating to their institutional responsibilities, according to the NIH website. The revised rules now define significant financial interest as $5,000, down from $10,000.

“People do have conflicts of interest, and it’s not the end of the world,” said Janet Blume, associate dean of the faculty. All Brown professors are required to file a conflict of interest form with the University every year, now listing potential conflicts of interest amounting to $5,000 or more.

“The University is obligated to look at these potential conflicts and work with the faculty to figure out if they’re real conflicts,” Schlissel said. The main effect of the change is the new rules now place the burden on the University to ask faculty whether a conflict of interest may exist, whereas under the old NIH rules, reporting potential conflicts was the faculty’s obligation, he said.

The University’s new rules were explained at the last meeting of the Corporation, the University’s highest governing body, in February, though Brown’s current conflict of interest policy will remain in effect until Aug. 24.

“The faculty realize that it’s very important that we maintain trustworthiness in the eyes of the public,” Schlissel said.

The changed rules should not affect research at Brown, wrote Clyde Briant, vice president for research, in an email to The Herald.

Professor of Economics Ross Levine offered an example of the complexities of conflict of interest in research funding. Levine received a $30,000 grant from the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation for research he is conducting on changes in competitive banking policies in 2009. The Koch brothers, founders of a group of charities that have given hundreds of millions of dollars to conservative organizations and causes, contacted Levine around 2006 after visiting campus, Levine said. They expressed interest in his research, which seeks to understand implications of increased competition among banks in the 1970s and 80s in terms of economic growth, distribution of income and racial discrimination, he said.

Levine said he was not familiar with the Koch brothers or their foundation when he accepted the grant money. He said he only learned about their political affiliations after reading an article in the New Yorker about them that caused him concern. “To me, the most important thing about research is that I just answer a question to the best of my abilities,” he said. “I’m very wary of accepting money that might put into question that objectivity.”

The grant was offered under terms that stated there would be no “quid pro quo” expected from Levine, he said.

None of the money from the Koch brothers is personally benefiting Levine, he said. The money has been allocated to hiring research assistants through an account Brown set up for Levine’s research. Levine has also used funding from several other sources to hire graduate and undergraduate students to assist on the same research, he said.

The Koch brothers have invited Levine to give presentations for their foundation. But “I would never accept to go talk to them or accept an honorarium if I thought it was going to question the objectivity of my research,” he said.

Levine said he is “uncomfortable” with the fact he did not know about the Koch brothers’ politics before accepting their grant. “I wish this wasn’t the case,” he said. He said he acknowledges the Koch brothers as a funding source on all papers related to the research, because “it’s the reality.”

At the same time, he said he recognizes the complexity of questions surrounding the ethics of accepting funds from outside sources. “I can’t be responsible for screening all of the money that comes to Brown that somehow affects my research, because it comes from such a huge number of sources,” he said.

Levine added that the American Economic Association also recently adopted new guidelines about disclosing funding sources that pose a potential conflict of interest, which he finds to be helpful.

Professor of Cognitive, Linguistic and Psychological Sciences Steven Sloman, who received a couple hundred thousand dollars from a consumer goods company for his causal reasoning research, said he supports the University’s new conflict of interest guidelines. “My sense is that the most important thing to the University is that we’re very public and open about where our funding comes from and also about what research we’re doing.”

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