3. Acceptable and unacceptable relationships
Case 3.1: Unacceptable relationship and lack of judgement
The head of a research unit is involved in a project related to pharmaceuticals. This person has personally received payment from the pharmaceutical company for travel in connection with professional meetings, and later participates in an evaluation committee with the objective of conducting a neutral assessment of the unit. The head of the research unit believes that this is in order.
Questions: Why is this a problem?
General comment: This case concerns acceptable and unacceptable relationships, and problems that may arise if employees are not aware of their obligations to their own institution, the research community, and society at large. Institutions have a responsibility to contribute to a healthy culture, and to train new employees in fostering a robust culture of research ethics. Of course, this does not exempt the individual from taking personal responsibility.
Comments from the pilot testers:
Comment 1: This is an obvious breach of the rules; the dilemma is who should say so, and where
Comment 2: This is a bit like setting the fox to keep the geese. It seems that the person involved may be acting out of self-interest and not the interests of the majority.
Article about conflicts of interest (Norw.)on the website of the National Committees for Research Ethics in Norway.
This states [in Norwegian]: 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.
Code of research ethics for natural sciences and technology (Norw.) especially:
20. The researcher has a duty to be open about possible conflicts of interest
Transparency concerning the research and the role of the researcher is important to ensure the quality of the research. Researchers with political or religious interests and researchers who take on assignments from industry or authorities may play a role in creating uncertainty about factors that may have affected the research results. In contrast, openness about different roles and other external connections that the researcher may have can help to create greater confidence that research results are independent and can be trusted.
This implies that:
a) The researcher discloses information about relevant financial circumstances.
b) The researcher discloses relevant positions and other work in political, religious, or other values-based organizations that might be perceived as influencing the research.
c) When the potential for conflict between different roles arises, the researcher must make it clear whether he or she is speaking as a researcher or in a different role.
Case 3.2: Disqualification due to research interests in assessment committee
A researcher sought assessment of professorial competence. A PhD candidate who had a supervisor relationship to the applicant was a member of the assessment committee.
Questions: Was it right for the PhD candidate to be included in the panel? Who should decide whether disqualification applies in such cases?
General comment: The issue of impartiality is not always crystal clear, but in general, a conflict of interest that arises because of the relationship is a sign of disqualification.
Comments from the pilot testers:
Comment 1: The PhD candidate should not have been included in the assessment panel. In the light of the supervisor relationship with the applicant, her/his decisions will probably be more subjective than they would otherwise have been. To be sure, many people maintain that it is more important for women than men to know someone in assessment committees - and in general in the process of appointments - but this can cut both ways. To establish processes that are as neutral and fair as possible, this should not happen. The chair and the other parties involved must share the responsibility for this.
Comment 2: At the outset, those who appointed the committee members should perhaps have tried to check whether inappropriate relationships and potential conflicts of interests existed. When this was not done, the PhD candidate should have considered whether it was right to accept this role. If the applicant seeking promotion found out about the composition of the panel and believed that the PhD candidate was disqualified, the applicant could have raised an objection.
Article (in Norwegian) about the provisions on disqualification in Norway's Public Administration Act [forvaltningsloven] ; take special note of Section 4:
When is one disqualified?
Section 6 of the Public Administration Act includes two main types of rules about disqualification. The first subsection lists typical situations in which one is disqualified without further discretionary consideration. The second subsection stipulates a discretionary general rule to supplement the "automatic" rules in the first subsection. Doubt about the question of disqualification may often arise, and in most situations the tradition is for the case officer to stand down rather than to take the chance of violating the rules governing disqualification.
Section 6, Subsection 1 lists various situations in which disqualification applies. Clause a) stipulates that a public official who is a party to the case is (of course) disqualified.