Proposed research concierge would help faculty navigate process


Pitt is looking to create a research concierge program to handle faculty questions about University procedures and policies to help everyone from new faculty to department heads get their research accomplished in the proper manner, Rob Rutenbar, senior vice chancellor for research, told the University Senate’s Research Committee meeting on April 15.

The research concierge program will aim to direct faculty to the services they need. Pitt usually has an employee or department handle each research process, Rutenbar said, but in such a large institution “you don't know where to find it. The idea is (to) build a big front-desk service. Almost all of our peers have one of these things.”

Too often, he noted, researchers may seek help with one item they believe they need most, or first, but learn that they need to take care of another, related issue ahead of this.

He said the new front desk will allow one-stop access to everything from pre-award services and intellectual property matters to regulatory and institutional review board processes. “We are going to try to build that ecosystem,” he said, so that “there's one place to go. We'll figure out what level of service you need.”

Institutional conflict of interest

The committee also discussed the new policy on institutional conflict of interest (ICOI) being formulated. While Pitt already has a general conflict of interest policy covering most faculty and staff, the ICOI policy will cover anyone with “chair,” “president,” “dean,” “provost” or “chancellor” in their title.

The aim is to prevent cases such as the one that arose in 2018 at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. There, the cancer center licensed human materials for research to a startup company with ownership interest held by the cancer center and its leadership and board members. Center leaders alone were thus able to profit from the work of center workers, while this new use of patient materials also came under question. An outside investigator found many conflicts of interest, and Memorial Sloan Kettering revised their COI policies.

Bill Yates, faculty member in the School of Medicine, noted that, “We're one of the few institutions that does not have an ICOI policy” and said its purpose in general was “to assure that institutional financial interests or the external engagements of University officials do not influence or appear to influence the integrity of the University's core missions.”

The policy, if approved, would create an ICOI committee “to identify and provide management plans for potential ICOIs by reviewing ‘threshold university transactions’” and advising on whether they should be undertaken, undertaken only if revised, or passed by.

Such “threshold University transactions” would include:

  • Accepting corporate gifts greater than $500,000 in one year.

  • Testing Pitt-licensed intellectual property in human subject experiments at the university or UPMC

  • Participating in sponsored research/activities from a non-public company where Pitt has equity.

  • Participating in sponsored research/activities from a public company where Pitt has a greater than $100,000 stake in equity.

  • Participating in sponsored research/activities from any entity where a senior University official has more than $25,000 in annual income.

  • Making annual purchases greater than $100,000 from any entity where a senior University official has more than $25,000 in annual income.

  • Licensing data or samples to any entity where a senior University official has more than $25,000 in annual income.

  • Anything else referred to the ICOI from other University committees (including the University Senate).

Members of the ICOI committee will be drawn from those below the level of senior University officials, including faculty from school groups (such as the health sciences) in proportion to their representation on the University Senate, as well as members of the Pitt community.

Following its investigations, the ICOI committee may recommend management plans for relevant University officials and their supervisors, and these recommendations can include declining gifts or funding, appointing new supervisors for some employees, or other steps.

Noting that the committee was only offering advice, Yates and Rutenbar added that the supervisors of each senior University official — such as in the case of the chancellor, the Board of Trustees — will decide upon the adoption of such recommendations.

The research committee will vote later on approval of the policy, but committee co-chair Penelope Morel, faculty member in the School of Medicine, said she expected its endorsement, after which it heads to the Faculty Assembly, Senate Council, the administrative leadership team and eventually the chancellor.

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at or 412-758-4859.


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