Conflict of interest
Understand the University’s objectives and policies, and your obligations for managing conflicts of interest that might arise in technology transfer
The University's definition of a conflict of interest
The University's guidelines for staff on research integrity and conflicts of interest state that:
- Conflicts of interest include any circumstances where a researcher has a real, perceived or potential opportunity to prefer their own interests, or those of any other person or organisation, to the interests of the University.
- Conflicts of interest can arise naturally from a staff member’s engagement with the world outside the University. The mere existence of a conflict of interest does not necessarily imply wrongdoing on anyone's part. However, in an academic environment where entrepreneurial and commercial practices are increasingly encouraged, it is essential that University research is carried out (and is seen to be carried out) in an impartial and independent manner, and is not compromised by any commercial activity.
When must I seek guidance on conflict of interest?
A conflict of interest occurs when there is a misalignment between your personal interests and your professional duty to the University, to the point where an external party might wonder if your actions or decisions are motivated by the potential for personal gain. These situations do not automatically imply unethical behaviour, but in the academic community this inference can compromise the University's reputation, values and research integrity. It is critical that you understand the problems caused by real or perceived conflict of interest, and how to disclose a potential conflict of interest.
Conflict of interests often occur at the junction of two differing academic responsibilities – to go beyond the limitations of current knowledge, and to ensure the public benefits from this knowledge via the private sector. Outside consulting, patenting and licensing a creation, or forming a start-up company may offer powerful financial incentives; however, personal gain must not have any influence over decisions you make as a University employee. Even the suggestion of a conflict of interest can damage the University's research objectivity, affect the protection of human participants in research, or impair other University responsibilities in education, clinical care or administration. Because of this, you must identify and disclose conflict of interests so that they can be eliminated.
Whenever a question or uncertainty arises, seek advice from your Head of Department or your Faculty Associate Dean (Research). There might also be specific requirements imposed by funding bodies. Of particular importance to the University is the requirement under the NHMRC Deed for immediate disclosure in writing of a conflict, risk or apparent conflict of interest. The holder of an NHMRC grant must notify in writing both their Head of Department and the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) in any situation where they believe a conflict, risk or apparent conflict of interest has arisen.
What kinds of situations could cause a conflict of interest?
Conflicts of interest can arise in situations including those dealing with the appropriate and objective use of research, the treatment and role of students, supervision of individuals working at both the University and a company that licenses University IP, and conflicts of commitment (i.e., your ability to meet your University obligations). A conflict of interest can also arise when a member of University staff is a director of a company that wishes to contract the University to undertake research in the staff member’s laboratory. The University’s Research Ethics and Integrity web site presents a conflict of interest management strategy that discusses the types of situation in which conflicts of interest might arise.
What are examples of a conflict of commitment?
A conflict of commitment might exist if duties, assignments or responsibilities associated with a technology licence or outside business arrangement have a negative impact on your ability to meet commitments associated with your University employment, or exceed the amount of time available to you for these activities. The best approach is to fully disclose your situation to your Head of Department and discuss the implications for your job responsibilities.
How does the University manage conflicts of interest assciated with research and commercialisation transactions?
The University’s Research Ethics and Integrity web site presents a conflict of interest management strategy based on the “Six R’s” – Register, Restrict, Recruit, Remove, Relinquish, Resign – and discusses when each of these strategies is most and least appropriate. For example, if you’re a member of a departmental or faculty committee that decides on pricing and availability of University facilities for external industry customers, and you’re also a founder of a staff start-up company that wants to pay the University to use these facilities over an extended period, it might be appropriate for you to remove yourself from this committee.
It is the responsibility of the researcher or faculty member to disclose and document any situations that constitute a conflict of interest, as described in the University Code of Conduct for Research.
The University will not approve any licensing or other technology transfer agreement until the conflict of interest reviews and approvals are complete.