Each day across campus, University of Minnesota researchers are reaching out and making connections with business and industry. These connections are essential to real-world innovation and technology transfer.
Of course, with these financial and business relationships comes the occasional conflict of interest. The Conflicts of Interest Review Committees serve the important role of ensuring that — in the midst of these relationships — the integrity and objectivity of research activities remain in tact.
As director of the Office of Institutional Compliance and a non-voting member of all three conflict of interest committees at the U of M, Lynn Zentner has significant expertise on the topic. Here, she shares some of the key focus areas of the review committees.
Many conflicts of interest arise when a faculty or staff member’s research could benefit an entity with which the individual has a consulting relationship. These relationships could lead to biased results. For example, a conflict may exist if a researcher has a consulting relationship with a device company for the purpose of developing a medical device, and at the same time is the principal investigator on research sponsored by that company.
The committees examine several factors when identifying a conflict, but there are two questions they answer first: whether the individual has a business interest in the company (e.g. serves on a company’s board of directors) or a financial interest (e.g. is engaged in compensated consulting for the company or has equity in the company or a right to receive royalties). If the answer is “yes,” then the committee asks whether those interests relate to the individual’s university responsibilities or expertise.
When a conflict is identified, the committee works with the researcher to create a conflict management plan to minimize risk. This plan could involve disclosing the conflict to students, research subjects, colleagues and publishers; enlisting the help of an assistant dean or other designee to oversee the research; or, in rare cases, asking the researcher to consider taking a temporary leave of absence. The Conflict of Interest Program follows up annually with individuals who have conflict management plans to ensure compliance with the plans.
Approximately 9,000 faculty and staff at the U of M are asked to complete a Report of External Professional Activities (REPA) on an annual basis. The committees use this information to identify possible conflicts. So don’t forget to fill it out!
Want to hear more from conflict of interest experts at the university? Don’t miss the Office for Technology Commercialization’s April startup workshop, which includes a panel discussion on the topic.