Conflict of interest policies paramount in accepting grants

The University adopted its current financial conflict of interest policies in 1994 and revised them in 1998.

by Geoffrey Ziezulewicz

A U.S. General Accounting Office report released Monday recommended that federal agencies awarding research grants make sure the universities receiving those grants have formal financial conflict of interest policies.

Congress asked the office, which investigates the use of public funds, to investigate how research universities use federal funds. The federal government provided $19 billion for university research in 2001.

The study was conducted to ensure the results of federally funded research are made available to the public and that universities that receive the grants have formal policies for identifying possible conflicts of interest.

Conflicts of interest can arise when a university researcher working on a project has financial interests in a private company that would benefit from the research results.

University of Minnesota officials said the University has already implemented the report’s recommendations which exceed federal standards.

Richard Bianco, assistant vice president for regulatory affairs, said the University policies also apply to industrial grants from private companies, which are often the source of most conflicts of interest.

“They include any external support no matter if it’s federal, non-federal or industry. It doesn’t matter,” said Bianco, who oversees the Academic Health Center’s conflict of interest policies.

Most federal grant money the University receives comes from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, which both require universities to have conflict of interest policies.

The University asks researchers during their proposals if a conflict exists, Bianco said. Several committees and the college dean’s office then evaluate the conflict.

Regardless of whether the health center’s faculty or staff members are involved in research, they must fill out at least one disclosure form per year, Bianco said.

“If you don’t have any (research), you still must fill out the form and say you don’t have any,” he said.

The University adopted its current financial conflict of interest policies in 1994, said Frank Cerra, senior vice president for the Academic Health Center.

The policies were revised in 1998, he said.

Bianco said a conflict is not always obvious to researchers.

“Most of our faculty get themselves into situations by not thinking through it clearly,” he said. “Once we point it out, it’s not a problem.”