Conflict Of Interest Not Necessarily A Problem

Faculty, administrators asked to disclose potential conflicts

Duke faculty member Nan Jokerst received funding from a major automaker to research advance vehicular radar that can automatically detect people, cars and animals to avoid potential collisions. 

She also owned stock in the company.

Does this relationship represent a conflict of interest?

"Realistically, my research is probably not going to affect the stock of a multi-billion dollar company," said Jokerst, the J.A. Jones Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Duke. "But you don't want to create that perception."

That's why Jokerst discloses any relationships or activities that might be considered a potential conflict of interest.

In March, Duke will send its annual form by email to 16,000 faculty, university officers, administrators, coaches, research administrators and others who receive federal grants, have discretion to spend university funds or make independent business decisions on behalf of Duke. The form will ask these individuals to disclose any outside activities or relationships that could potentially influence their decision making or compromise their judgment in actions affecting the university.

"In general, we don't have a problem with people having a conflict of interest," said Joan Podleski, director of Institutional Ethics and Compliance at Duke. "If there is a conflict, we just want to make sure we know about it and manage it appropriately.

Jokerst's situation did not represent a conflict that needed to be managed because the results of her research would not have influenced the company's stock price for her financial benefit. But, there are other situations at Duke that could.  There are currently more than 250 conflicts that are being managed to limit the potential for the activity or relationship to unduly influence decisions at Duke.

In such cases,  a representative from one of the conflict of interest review committees at Duke (medical, campus, administrative and institutional) works with individual to establish a management plan. For example, if a faculty member serves as a consultant for an outside company that also provides financial support to the university for research, a management plan is developed to help guide and protect the university and the faculty member to ensure the results of any research are not influenced by the relationship.

"At a research institution like Duke, it is very hard not to have people with conflicts," Podleski said. "From an administrative perspective, we want to make sure there is enough distinction between the individual and the company to ensure that there is no undue influence in decisions. This is really about transparency and appropriate oversight."

Podleski said that the worst type of problems arise  when a relationship with an outside organization is not disclosed. She described a situation several years ago at a university in Georgia where the director of the psychiatry department earned about $3 million consulting with a drug company while also promoting its drug. The problem arose when the director did not report the full amount of money received from the drug company. 

"Conflict is about perception of potential influence, even when no influence occurs," Podleski said. "It could have been that the drug was great and everything he said was the truth. But the fact he didn't tell anyone creates a problem with perception and made management of the potential conflict impossible. It's about public trust."

Jokerst, who has also served on one of Duke's conflict of interest committees, said that faculty must deal with a lot of compliance-related issues, but attitudes are changing about how Duke manages conflict of interest.

"This is not about the university saying, `you can't do that,'" she said. "The university really wants to help faculty and others manage this process and to protect us."