Objectivity, Bias and (Financial) Conflict of Interest
By Marianne Evola, Ph.D.
Financial disclosure, management plans, conflict of interest (COI), transparency, these are all hot button issues in the realm of research integrity. However, resistance to financial disclosure and management of COI is somewhat puzzling to me. All of these issues revolve around the concern for bias in research but there is nothing new about addressing real or perceived bias in research. In fact, addressing the potential for research bias and designing experiments to maximize objectivity is central to training in research. Probably every undergraduate research methods course covers the concern for bias and teaches strategies to minimize bias. Bias is, in fact, such a basic concept that even the fictional world of science addresses these issues.
At the risk of revealing that 1) I waste too much time watching television and 2) my choices for television entertainment may stereotype me as a “nerd,” two of my favorite fictional television characters exemplify the issues of bias and objectivity. First, as a long standing Star Trek fan, one of my favorite characters is Mr. Data. Data is an android that has no emotions or ego and as such, he is the ideal of scientific objectivity. Lacking emotion and ego, the character has no investment in being “right” and therefore, formulates scientific questions and proposes experiments with pure objectivity. As an undergraduate student, this ideal of objectivity, although fictional, was one of the first virtues that attracted me to research. The second character is much more flawed. Dr. Sheldon Cooper from the sitcom, The Big Bang Theory, is a genius physicist that loves to believe that he has the objectivity of Mr. Data. However, Sheldon has a huge ego and is completely vested in being right and as such, is totally biased and humorously oblivious to that bias. I certainly do not think that either character models the reality of research. As fictional characters often are, both of these characters are simplified and extreme versions of reality. In truth, researchers are aware that we are inherently biased and that also we aspire to the ideal of objectivity in research.
Researchers are human and as such, like Sheldon, we have egos and like to be right. The normal state of research is one of competition. Careers are built on being right. Positive research results and pilot data are more likely to get published and funded. Tenure is largely dependent on publication and funding. We invest time and effort on a theoretical approach to our work and as such are more inclined to see data that fit our hypothesis rather than that which does not. As such, we are vested in the outcome of our experiments. Objectivity is an ideal that we address through experimental design, automated systems, double blind trials, opening our work to critical review and sometimes utilizing student assistants that we attempt to keep blind to our expectations. However, we also know that even the selection of the experiments we conduct can be biased. And it is not uncommon, as we peruse the literature, to note that colleagues and competitors often conduct experiments that are designed to support their ideas rather than working to disprove hypotheses, forgetting that the strongest proof attainable is a failure to disprove. With all this awareness of inherent bias, it surprises me that researchers can be resistant to the idea that financial gain can lead to real or perceived bias.
So, why is there resistance to financial disclosure in a population so attuned to bias? Well, I think there are multiple contributors to the resistance to financial disclosure and most of them relate more to communication than they do to a denial that bias can be created by financial gain.
1) Financial Disclosure documents are inscrutable and time consuming to complete.
As for inscrutable there is an element of truth to this complaint. The questions on the disclosure forms are formulated to address questions posed by federal agencies, NIH or NSF. As such, they can be confusing, especially for junior researchers. I remember when I completed my first disclosure form in graduate school. It appeared one day in my mailbox with a note that completion was mandatory. Short of a savings, checking and credit card account, I had no experience with any investments or finance. The form was a complete enigma, and I honestly cannot remember how I answered any of the questions. But I do remember that there were no contact persons listed on the form who I could contact with questions. Through all means possible, we have worked to make our office available for questions. Specifically, our Financial Conflict of Interest Administrator, Amy Baugh, is well versed on the forms and happy to help clarify the questions.
As for time consuming, this is true for only a small subset of faculty and researchers. The vast majority of TTU personnel can complete their financial disclosure in a few minutes by answering six questions. However, for our faculty that have complex careers with a multitude of consulting relationships and/or companies, completing the forms and constructing management plans can be time consuming. It is not that we do not respect your productivity and the demands on your time, but rather we are working to ensure that all of your activities are in compliance with federal requirements. Neglecting these disclosures has caused devastating damage to the reputation and careers of researchers that failed to divulge financial relationships related to federally sponsored research.
2) My expertise is needed outside the university.
The academic freedom on university campuses fosters expertise at a level seldom seen outside of academic settings. And that expertise is a very valuable asset both inside and outside of the university. Government and industry often need to consult our experts. Consulting activities and relationships are beneficial to the individual but also to the university campus. University reputations are built on the expertise of the faculty and consulting relationships can build bridges between the university and industry that create opportunities for research collaboration with private funding. Realistically, with the growing costs of universities, these partnerships cannot be rejected but rather many universities actively foster partnerships that will enable the university to continue to thrive. As such, faculty activity outside of the university is a natural extension of their academic pursuits and this is recognized by the university. However, these relationships also demand that there be oversight to maintain the integrity of research and minimize the likelihood of bias, perceived or real, which would damage the reputation of the faculty or the TTU community. With the demand of the expertise of our faculty, we recognize that conflict of interest cannot be eliminated but rather, it must be managed.
3) My financial interests are private and not the business of the TTU administration.
As a state funded institution competing for federally funds, we are bound by regulations instituted by NSF and NIH, and as such personnel are required to comply with federal and university policy, especially personnel conducting federally sponsored projects. Although, we, as people, can relate to a desire for privacy regarding personal finances, as a research institution, Texas Tech must maintain federal standards of disclosure to have federal dollars at our disposal. If any TTU personnel have questions regarding the handling of confidential financial information, we welcome your questions and recommendations.
To close, I want to comment that although financial disclosure makes our lives a bit more complicated, it is merely a “checks and balance” on the marked benefit provided by the Bayh- Dole act. The Bayh-Dole act permitted academic institutions and scholars to patent and hence, profit from their creativity and hard work. It opened the door for universities to become institutions of commercialization and academics to become businessmen. It created a system that maximized productivity of researchers by allowing them to profit from their ingenuity and sweat. However, it also created unavoidable conflict of interest. Conflict of interest is not something that is to be avoided or eliminated but rather managed. Just as research has worked to minimize bias associated with being human, we will work to minimize the likelihood that conflict of interest will promote bias. Financial disclosure is a means of being transparent on potential contributors to bias. Transparency promotes trust.
We recognize that forms and procedure can be confusing and time consuming, especially when faced by extremely busy people. However, our office is here to help as we continue to aspire to true objectivity, even in the face of conflict of interest.
Marianne Evola is senior administrator in the Responsible Research area of the Office of the Vice President for Research. She is a monthly contributor to Scholarly Messenger.
Alice Young, associate vice president for research/research integrity, is a contributing author/editor.