Watchdog: Universities Must Confront Their Conflicts of Interest

Jocelyn is a staff writer for Science magazine.

Although much ado has been made recently about whether universities are doing enough to police their medical researchers' financial conflicts of interest (COI), less has been said about conflicts involving the institutions themselves. A new report from a federal watchdog office finds that although some universities have policies to manage institutional conflicts, many others do not.

Unlike for individual researchers, institutions with National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding aren't required to have policies on institutional conflicts of interest. To find out how many do anyway, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' inspector general (IG) sent a survey to 250 institutions (most are universities, and the 250 are a subset of the more than 2000 institutions with NIH funding.) Of the 156 institutions that responded (62%), only 70 said they had written policies defining "interests," such as equity in a company owned by the institution or a top official; about the same number had defined what constitutes a conflict. Eighteen institutions identified conflicts in 2008, most often equity in a privately held company.

The IG urges NIH to require that institutions have policies for institutional conflicts and report them to NIH "so it can ensure that related research is free from any intended or unintended bias." The Association of American Medical Colleges, among other groups, has also urged its members to do so and offered guidance.

But NIH says it's not ready to do that. In a response, NIH notes that although the agency raised the topic while revising its COI guidelines for individuals last year, the issue is "highly complex." NIH "neither concurs or nonconcurs" with the recommendation but promises to "take [it] into consideration."

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