Academic and scientific research are two areas where people, no matter their backgrounds, beliefs, or goals, must be able to turn to for answers with the understanding that what they are reading or hearing is completely factual. Research must be evidence-based and neutral, without the taint of bias or conflicting interests to deter others from taking the outcome and information obtained from it at face value.
The problem occurs when there is a situation where research has happened but a person or group involved in it at one or more steps has more than one vested interest in the results, otherwise termed a ‘conflict of interest.’ If this exists in a sponsored research endeavor, the reputability of the scholar or university hosting the experiment may be called into question. This lack of trust between the intended audience and the researcher drives a wedge between the authenticity of the information and the way it is received. To prevent this from impacting the research negatively, it’s crucial for all conflicts of interest to be avoided and navigated successfully, and if they can’t be totally avoided, such as when the research is sponsored by another funding source, they should be accounted for transparently.
Why Sponsorship is Necessary for Research
The reality is that most conflicts of interest occur due to something that has its origins in money. Whether it is that money is necessary for the research to be performed or that the research itself has the potential of making a financial impact, money is frequently at the root of any conflict of interest.
This is a very difficult situation to avoid because research can be very expensive, resulting in the need for sponsorship in order for it to be performed. Funders don’t want to sponsor something that does not pertain to them in some way, so if they have a financial stake in the outcome, it can look as though there is a conflict of interest. However, if this investment is adhered to fully transparently and the funder is only on board to provide resources, letting the academic expert have full control over every aspect of the research project and how the findings are presented, this small conflict is usually avoided. The problem occurs when the researcher is limited in their choices based on what the funder wants or is prohibited from presenting their findings wholly due to the potential negative impact on the funder.
In these cases, even though sponsorship is necessary, it’s best for the researcher to look elsewhere to find someone to fund their work where there is less likely to be a visible and impactful conflict of interest.
Successfully Navigating These Conflicts of Interest
Avoiding conflicts of interest in your research are not only the ethical thing to do, in some cases, but it’s also legally required. Always follow your institution’s policies on sponsorship to ensure you are implementing everything in a way that can be justified should an accusation of conflict occur.
Some universities and research institutions have procedures in place to successfully navigate potential conflicting interest issues, such as:
● A specified monetary threshold in which significant financial interests of a funder must be disclosed if it’s from a non-publicly traded company
● Requiring mandatory training for all externally-funded researchers, wherein they will learn about their responsibility in disclosing any significant financial interests before they engage in research, or agree to a grant or other contracted work
● Requiring disclosure of any activity funded externally related to the research, including travel reimbursements or gifts
● Following FCOI regulations provided through training, on their website, or in the written policies provided upon request to the researcher
As long as all information that could be perceived as a conflict of interest is disclosed to the institution in charge of the research and is transparently recorded and made a public record with the research submission, these conflicts of interest can be navigated to avoid challenges to the legitimacy of the work, the scholar, and the university.