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I'm responsible for a large research project, with many members and some substantial funding for traveling to conferences. However, I'm now in a relationship with one of its members. How should I proceed regarding allocating funds to my significant other? I'm worried that I may be accused of being unethical if I allocate whichever amount to them. What should I do? Namely, I would like to declare a conflict of interest, but there does not seem to be a way to deal with this conflict without some drastic consequences.

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    Why can't you just keep giving them how much they were receiving before? With raises on schedule – Azor Ahai Jan 17 at 21:36
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    Well, it seems pretty clear to me that you need to declare the conflict anyway, probably to your institution and also to your funding agency. They may have rules that take the matter out of your hands. – Nate Eldredge Jan 17 at 21:51
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    Seconding @NateEldredge's point: declare the conflict, and the funding (etc) agencies will have guidelines/requirements, which you just follow. It should not be something you have to wisely decide on your own, in these times, in the U.S., etc. – paul garrett Jan 17 at 22:52
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    Just take care of her. You don't want to sleep on the couch, right? (Kidding!) Talk to someone official. Unfortunately this is a downside of romance in the workplace. It is even possible that one of you may need to exit the joint grant. Or perhaps someone else becomes leader. – guest Jan 18 at 0:06
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    Is it in your contract that you're not allowed to enter relationships with other members? It's not an uncommon thing to see in such positions for exactly this reason. I can't see how you'll ever be able to do your job without this conflict of interest. – UKMonkey Jan 18 at 15:33
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I served for a couple of years on the Conflict of Interest Committee of my institution. During that time I learned many useful and sometimes counterintuitive things about the subject. The principles that should guide you in thinking about what to do to avoid exposing yourself to any accusations of policy or ethics violations are:

  1. You should avoid putting yourself in a conflict of interest with respect to the grant and your significant other, if at all possible.

    The point of the “if” qualifier is that, as you seem to believe, it may not in fact be possible to avoid without taking unreasonably drastic measures such as you or your SO resigning your roles.

  2. You should avoid creating the appearance of an unmanaged conflict of interest, period. No exceptions.

    The point of “appearance” is that it’s not just the conflict that needs to be avoided but also the appearance of one. You may be the most ethical person on the planet, or you may even know certain facts that not everyone knows that explain away the conflict and make you confident what you are doing is fine, but the appearance of a conflict can invite consequences that are just as bad, and possibly worse (e.g. a headline in the New York Times followed by calls for your resignation, a public lynching or whatnot), than the conflict itself.

    The point of “unmanaged” is that if you can’t avoid a conflict - and one of the surprising things I learned is that conflicts can not always be avoided, nor is avoiding all conflicts at any cost even a desirable goal to have - then the next best thing is to find a way to manage the conflict. For example, at many institutions one can set up a conflict management plan, which may involve additional levels of oversight (for example a department chair or dean signing off on your funding allocation decisions pertaining to your significant other, and maybe additional reporting requirements such as you filing a letter of explanation justifying any such decision).

  3. This goes without saying, but you should find out all applicable rules and policies that govern your situation.

The bottom line is, you should ask for guidance from your institution and your funding agency on how to address the situation. Have in writing documents, written (or at least reviewed and approved) by people in authority, which specify how you are expected to handle the situation. Then follow what these documents say.

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    Yes, seconding the point of avoiding appearance of conflict of interest, among other good points. – paul garrett Jan 17 at 22:53
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    Noting that whoever loses funding is going to immediately bitch about it and make formal complaints about you, you need to make yourself bulletproof. – Valorum Jan 18 at 4:53
  • I think you should expand on what it means to be part of the Conflict of Interest Committee. Obviously the details will be school specific, but I think that the most valuable part of this answer is pointing out that most universities already have resources devoted to resolving these sorts of problems that the OP can avail themselves of. – Arcanist Lupus Jan 18 at 18:48
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    @ArcanistLupus actually the types of conflicts our committee dealt with were mostly different from OP’s specific conflict - things like a medical researcher testing the efficacy of a drug who also has a financial stake in the success of the experiment. We were charged with determining when the potential for a conflict exists and what to do about it. Anyway, I believe my answer is applicable to OP’s situation even if their specific conflict might not have fallen under the purview of this specific committee. – Dan Romik Jan 18 at 19:55
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However, I'm now in a relationship with one of its members. How should I proceed regarding allocating funds to my significant other?

The best thing to do here is to disclose the conflict-of-interest to your Head of School** and ask that they allocate a different academic to decide the funding allocation. The Head of School might have a different idea, and might decide that they want you to make the decision anyway, and if so, they will direct you to do that. By suggesting you be removed from making the decision you will have given yourself protection in the event that you are asked to make the decision and then later accused of bias. That will put you in a strong position if you are later accused of any mismanagement or bias.

I would like to declare a conflict of interest, but there does not seem to exist a way to deal with this conflict without some drastic consequences.

That is ridiculous. There certainly should not be any adverse consequences merely for declaring a conflict-of-interest prior to making a decision. The whole point of a conflict-of-interest policy is to encourage people to disclose potential conflicts-of-interest so that alternative decision-making arrangements can be made to avoid the conflict. The onus is on you to declare the conflict to your Head of School, and the onus is then on the Head of School to decide how to proceed. If your university has a conflict-of-interest policy then you should read it and follow its reporting rules, and if there is no such policy then you should declare the conflict directly to your Head of School with a simple email.

Also, you are not required to find a solution to your own conflict-of-interest. The whole point of the conflict is to make your decision-making suspect, and thereby taint decisions you make on the matter. Once you have disclosed the conflict-of-interest to your Head of School, the onus of decision-making will be on him/her to decide if and how they would like to alter the normal decision-making mechanisms.


** Throughout this answer I will refer to disclosure to your Head of School. Depending on your level in the university it might be sufficient to make disclosure to your own supervisor, even if this staff member is lower than Head of School. For simplicity, I will refer to disclosures to HoS.

  • Disclosing is of course necessary, but does not solve the problem. Nor is it reasonable to only expect others to do something about this. – einpoklum - reinstate Monica Jan 19 at 9:32
  • I disagree - as stated in the answer, the whole effect of the conflict is to put the decision-making of that person under legitimate suspicion. Allowing the person under conflict to decide the solution to the conflict is a failure. – Reinstate Monica Jan 19 at 21:52
  • "Allowing the person under conflict to decide the solution to the conflict is a failure" <- Your suggestion, by default, means this will still be the case. The head-of-school could change it, if they wanted to. When people later complain about OPs funding decisions, the fact that s/he disclosed the conflict-of-interests will not be a good defense. – einpoklum - reinstate Monica Jan 19 at 22:02
  • I don't agree - If the HoS assesses the matter independently and directs it back to the original decision-maker, then decision of who will make the funding decision has been made by a person under no conflict. The HoS could still be wrong to have referred it back to the original decision-maker, and there could certainly still be a complaint. Having referred the matter to the HoS, and then been ordered to make the decision anyway is an extremely strong defence against criticism. I cannot think of a stronger defence for the original decision-maker than this. – Reinstate Monica Jan 19 at 22:15
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    Neither disclosing nor getting an instruction to essentially ignore the CoI significantly improves OP's legal situation. A higher-up approval does not "bless" a CoI-influenced decision with legitimacy. Of course this depends on the country, and on many specifics, but your instinct is wrong AFAIK. – einpoklum - reinstate Monica Jan 20 at 10:28
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You report the conflict of interest to your superior, and ask for help developing a management plan moving forward. Full stop.

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The ethical way is to allocate funds in the same way you would if the other person wasn't in this relationship.

The "safe" way to make the decision and avoid appearances of impropriety is to somehow share the decision with either an independent party or the members of the group itself. It is harder to claim unethical behavior if the decisions are made in public, with full transparency. In extreme cases you could delegate the decision to someone else, such as a superior, if that is possible.

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    "The ethical way is to allocate funds in the same way you would if the other person wasn't in this relationship. " Yes. It's also impossible to completly ignore ones feelings on decisions so you'll never truly know what decision you would have made otherwise. – DonQuiKong Jan 18 at 8:20
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TL;DR: 1. Involve an impartial party in decision making; 2. lots of transparency.

As other answers suggest, it is important to recognize and disclose the fact that you are in a conflict of interests. However, that is not enough - it is merely the beginning. You can also not rely on higher-ups to provide adequate (or any) remedy to this situation: They might help, or they might not - it depends on the specific rules and organizational culture in your institute. Don't be surprised if they will be mostly annoyed at you creating more headaches and trouble in their already overly-busy schedule.

Ignoring here any specific procedures and binding rules that might apply to your case (which you should not ignore - read up on them), let's assume for a second it's all up to you. In this case, the solution must - IMHO - involve:

  • Someone who is not you interfering, supervising or participating in your decisions regarding how funds are allocated and to whom. This should not be a person you choose, but rather someone which is chosen either by consensus of the people affected by the funding decisions, or by higher-up academics or management which the people affected hold in high enough regard. The extent of involvement is also something that should have wide agreement, and I suggest you err on the side of caution, i.e. the more you can offload the decision to such an external party the better off this would be ethically. Of course, the price is more burden on that person, plus there will possibly be professional considerations which you are more capable in making - but that's the price you pay for better fairness when you have a conflict of interests.

    Note: In my opinion, someone having authority over all of you choosing the external party is not in itself good enough, since that higher-up might not be trusted by the people affected.

  • Transparency in all possible stages of the process: What funds are available; what the external obligations are; what actions you are taking to secure more funds or to convince people to do things which affect fund allocations; the timelines for funding decision making; the criteria and formulae used in allocation; the input material and appeals by relevant people (including but not limited to your SO) for funding etc. Such transparency should be in face of those people who may be affected by the decision, including those which otherwise you would not have felt obligated to discuss these matters with.

As a side-note, I would very much recommend not to try something like democratizing the funding decisions, unless you're democratizing many other aspects of the project or the research group. The reason is that as a central person with more influence and power, you are likely to be able to form majorities even around less-favorable positions, and to deter juniors from opposing your position. Plus, you and your SO are two people, biasing the process even more in favor of your potentially-coordinated decision.

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