Skip to Navigation
University of Pittsburgh
Print This Page Print this pages

October 9, 2008

Science 2008: Responsible research series launched

Science 2008 marked the launch of a new preview event aimed at fostering the responsible conduct of research among early-career investigators.

The first of five annual workshops, held Oct. 1, focused on conflict of interest and relations with industry. In it, Pitt post-docs pondered a theoretical conflict of interest case and heard from experts on academic-industry partnerships.

Barbara Barnes, associate vice chancellor for continuing education and industry relationships, cautioned that it can be difficult to understand where the boundaries lie when researchers pursue relationships with industry.

As a result, academic medical centers are developing guidelines and policies that require the review of consulting agreements and restrict interaction with industry representatives. (Pitt’s Schools of the Health Sciences and UPMC jointly implemented an industry relationship policy in February.) Other initiatives among academic medical centers have improved processes for disclosures and comprehensive management of conflict of interest, as well as begun educating students, faculty and staff on potential conflicts.

As National Institutes of Health funding has leveled off, Barnes said, partnerships with industry become more critical to ensuring that academic research continues to move ahead. Roughly two-thirds of continuing medical education is paid for by industry in some way, including internships and training opportunities, she said. Faculty members may gain by earning money through consulting and extramural opportunities — opportunities that allow medical centers to remain competitive in recruiting medical faculty.

Barnes pointed out examples of recent cases in the news that have found industry influences affecting research publishing (including the delayed or inadequate reporting of negative results and ghostwriting by industry personnel under the byline of medical experts), failure to disclose relationships with industry (such as consulting income), fraud and kickbacks and overuse or misuse of drugs and devices.

A responsibility to bring technologies and devices to market needs to be balanced with responsibility for the public good, so the question remains: Just how tight with industry should researchers get?

Leland L. Glenna outlined for the young researchers some of the results of the 1980 Bayh-Dole Act that opened the door for university research to be patented and licensed in the marketplace. A professor in Penn State’s agricultural economics and rural sociology department, Glenna contributed to a USDA-funded research project that studied the effects of university-industry research collaborations on the provisioning of public goods.

Noting the shift from academia’s traditional focus on the basic science and knowledge that the private sector has no financial incentive to produce, Glenna pointed out that where universities and industry “once had distinct institutional norms and goals, now the lines between institutions are blurring.”

Case studies that included interviews with university scientists and administrators and industry managers and scientists found that some university administrators are shifting from the traditional view to embrace the perspective that producing private goods contributes to the public good, he said. In addition, Glenna found, some administrators feel that if they can demonstrate their university’s contributions to economic development, the legislators who fund their schools are more likely to increase funding.

He acknowledged that partnerships with industry can benefit society by allowing for the smoother transfer of knowledge into products and technologies that benefit the public good. But, he said, there is a danger that universities will pursue mixed and contradictory goals and that the public values and activities of researchers could be compromised.

“The challenge is to manage the situation to maximize the promises and reduce the perils,” he said.

Glenna said interviews with university scientists showed they feel they are receiving “complex and conflicting messages and goals from their universities” with regard to the role of commercial science. Their comments revealed a “but” phenomenon in their perceptions on industry relationships, Glenna said.

The researchers noted that relationships with industry can increase contact between scientists but can restrict communications among colleagues in the interest of protecting proprietary information. They also felt that university policies need to protect scientists from exploitative industry “but they shouldn’t be so protective as to discourage industry collaboration,” Glenna said.

In this period of transition, university scientists now are expected to conduct basic and applied, proprietary and non-proprietary research, he said. “Given current commercialization pressures, special attention may be necessary to support nonproprietary and basic research” to prevent the decline of the scientific foundations that underlie the development of commercial technologies.

“With universities open to more external influence, scientists’ research values may become more relevant.”

The responsible conduct of research for emerging investigators program, sponsored by the Office of Academic Career Development, is funded in part by the National Postdoctoral Association and the Office of Research Integrity.

Future programs, each of which are scheduled to be offered as preview events in conjunction with Pitt’s annual Science symposium, will focus on electronic notebooks and data management in 2009, publication ethics and scientific communication in 2010, collaboration and team science in 2011 and mentor-mentee relationships in 2012.

Participants in the inaugural event will be invited to participate in a Schools of the Health Sciences certificate program in the responsible conduct of research. The certificate for post-docs requires attendance at two of the annual Science preview events, participation in two brown-bag seminars on topical research themes and service as a facilitator at a survival skills and ethics program workshop.

According to program sponsors, the certificate verifies the holder’s preparation to provide responsible leadership to his/her research program, in addition to mentoring and training others in the responsible conduct of research.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 41 Issue 4

Leave a Reply