4. Handling conflicts of interest

Case:
4.1: Work outside the university and application for project funds from the Research Council of Norway
4.2: Contract for environmentally hostile research?
4.3: Conflicts of interest: The fox keeping the geese
4.4: Product with commercialization potential and uncompleted doctorate

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Case 4.1: Work outside the university and application for project funds from the Research Council of Norway
A professor employed by NTNU has a part-time job (20%) in his/her own field of expertise at a university college in Northern Norway. The Research Council of Norway announces project funds in this discipline. The group of NTNU researchers to which the professor belongs works together on an application to the Research Council. The other employer at the university college also plans to submit an application for the same Research Council funds. "Our" professor is asked to help with preparing the application to the Research Council of Norway from the university college as well. "Our" professor is thus involved with two applications for the same Research Council funds: one from NTNU and one from the university college.

Questions: Should this situation be perceived as a conflict of interest, and is it ethically acceptable to be involved in both applications? Is it OK to wear two hats?

General comment: In general, you need to be open about potential conflicts of interest that you may come across in relation to your employer. Whether this case should be perceived as a conflict of interest or only as a competitive situation is probably not completely obvious.

Guidelines for natural sciences and technology (Norw.), on "Åpenhet, oppdragsforskning og interessekonflikter" ["Transparency, contract research, and conflicts of interest"].

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Case 4.2: Contract for environmentally hostile research?
In his blog on 7 November 2008, Rector Torbjørn Digernes writes about research on the exploitation of oil sands in Canada:

Last Friday I read a harsh tirade in an editorial in Morgenbladet [a Norwegian weekly newspaper]. The title was "Rektor Digernes’ logikk" ["The Logic of Rector Digernes"]. The background is that NTNU, together with three Canadian universities, has signed a research agreement with StatoilHydro in Canada for research on improvements to efficiency and to environment-related aspects of oil recovery from oil sands. In this connection I was interviewed in Under Dusken [the official student newspaper in Trondheim]. Morgenbladet's leader writer got hold of a statement in the interview that was taken completely out of context, and produced a rhetorical argument that ended with gas chambers and weapons of mass destruction.

It was not pleasant reading. And I am not particularly impressed by the logic or the ethics of the editorial. But it concerns an important subject, and it was important to respond. In today's edition of Morgenbladet I have therefore been given space to describe the real logic of Rector Digernes.

Questions: What kind of and whose interests should the Rector and an institution such as NTNU protect in this case? Do some interests take precedence over others (individual, institutional, societal, others?) The last comment includes an assertion that, according to Digernes, good ethics are conditional on technological progress. Would this type of association contribute to reducing technology (and NTNU's interests) to a narrow interpretation of "good" technology?

General comment: The issue is partly whether everything should be subjected to research, and how to weigh up different types of risk against each other. It is clear that different stakeholders are involved: the individual institution (special interests?), societal interests and common interests, in addition to a specific dilemma: the shared need for energy, which demands both protection and risk taking at the same time. This case also raises questions about which interests deserve the greatest loyalty.

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Case 4.3: Conflicts of interest: The fox keeping the geese
An NTNU professor with an extra job at SINTEF was involved in a research project with the aim of developing a vaccine. At the same time, he was an adviser for a pharmaceutical company, and also participated in an expert group for the Directorate for Health and Social Affairs. The situation was reported in the media and met with criticism from the academic environment.

Question: Is this situation open to criticism? If so, why?

General comment: Such cases weaken confidence in the research, and also cast doubts on the researcher's credibility. The case is a clear example of an unfortunate conflict of interest between the individual and the system(s).

Comments from the pilot testers:
Comment 1: The most blameworthy aspect is the relationship to the pharmaceutical company
Comment 2: The connection with the pharmaceutical company is clearly unfortunate, especially with regard to credibility.
Comment 3: There is some likelihood that strong financial interests are involved (the pharmaceutical company), so that the person in question cannot simply be regarded as neutral in relation to the Directorate for Health and Social Affairs.

Article on research ethics including some reflections on conflicts of interest in the relationship between the National Committees for Research Ethics in Norway and the pharmaceutical industry (Norw.).

The same type of argument can also be applied to other relationships, especially on the basis of the following section about primary and secondary interests:

Conflicts of interest arise when primary interests give way to secondary interests. The primary interest of a committee for research ethics is to take care of the rights, safety and well-being of human subjects in clinical trials. All other interests are secondary, whether they involve financial gain, professional status, power, or recognition.

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Case 4.4: Product with commercialization potential and uncompleted doctorate
A PhD candidate developed software for analysis of biomedical data, which had commercialization potential. The project was part of a collaboration between technologists and doctors, and required division of work between two faculties. In this case, a question arose concerning rights to the product. The solution that resulted from legal follow-up internally at NTNU was that the candidate was released from the contract without completing the doctorate. The supervisor thus stopped the PhD; the candidate, with no doctorate, took the product to an external party.

Question: Would an alternative solution have been possible in this case, so that the candidate could have completed a PhD, and the rights to the product would not have disappeared from NTNU?

General comment: This case concerns a lack of clarity in procedures and contracts as well as inadequate progress reporting in the supervisor/candidate relationship. At the same time, it raises questions about the use and publication of data, conflicts of interest, transparency and trust. It also reveals some of the vulnerability in large collaborative projects where the requirements for good cooperation are considerable and there may be much at stake (in human and financial terms).

Comments from the pilot testers:
Comment 1: Financially, it would have been best for NTNU if the candidate had completed the doctorate and had not left NTNU.

Article from Innovation Norway [a State-owned company promoting industrial development] about intellectual property rights (pdf) which may include patents, designs and trademarks.