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Science and Conflict of Interest

Frederick Grinnell is a Professor of Cell Biology and founder of the Program in Ethics in Science and Medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas.  His new book, Everyday Practice of Science: Where Intuition and Passion Meet Objectivity and Logic, is an insider’s view of real-life scientific practice.  Grinnell demystifies the textbook model of a linear “scientific method,” suggesting instead a contextual understanding of science.  In the post below Grinnell looks at conflict-of-interest in scientific research.

On April 8, 2009, Science magazine interviewed John Holdren, presidential science adviser and head of the White House Office of Science and Technology in the Obama Administration.

Amongst many other questions, ScienceInsider asked Holdren: “Will your review of scientific ethics include a review of conflict-of-interest policies at each agency?” Holdren replied: “I think it has to look at that. I wouldn’t prejudge what we’re going to say. But the question is, ‘What are the appropriate boundaries?’”

In March, President Obama distributed a memorandum for heads of executive departments and agencies regarding Scientific Integrity.

In the memorandum, the expression Conflict of Interest is not specifically used. The closest mention to conflict of interest is point 1(e): “Each agency should have in place procedures to identify and address instances in which the scientific process or the integrity of scientific and technological information may be compromised.”

Perhaps the nuanced language of the President’s memorandum signals a new approach to conflict of interest. According to the U.S. National Academies’ definition, a conflict of interest is “any financial or other interest which conflicts with the service of the individual because it (i) could significantly impair the individual’s objectivity or (ii) could create an unfair competitive advantage for any person or organization.”

Not only soft money support for professorial salaries, but also peer review of grant application and research manuscripts would likely be considered inherently conflicted according to the above criteria. On one hand, we all recognize that conflicts of interest can interfere with every aspect of the practice of science, including analysis and publication of research findings, sharing of research knowledge and tools, and decision making by public advisory committees. On the other, perhaps it is time to explain why some conflicts advance rather than compromise science, an idea that can be read into Holdren’s comment about appropriate boundaries.

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  1. [...] Frederick Grinnell is Professor of Cell Biology and founder of the Program in Ethics in Science and Medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas. His newest book, Everyday Practice of Science: Where Intuition and Passion Meet Objectivity and Logic offers an insider’s view of real-life scientific practice. Grinnell demystifies the textbook model of a linear “scientific method,” suggesting instead a contextual understanding of science. Scientists do not work in objective isolation, he argues, but are motivated by interest and passions.  In the article below he looks at how graduate scientific education should be changed.  Read previous posts by Grinnell here. [...]

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