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I was a postdoctoral fellow at a university and received nothing but the regular postdoc salary. I received no grants myself, but worked on various projects, many of which happened to be industry sponsored. My PI disclosed them as sources of potential conflicts of interest, but I never did. Assuming that my position couldn't exist without the industry research grants received by my PI, did receiving money from a company, although indirectly, generate a potential source of a conflict of interest for me?

Edit: Just to clarify, I am not interested in how to disclose/report this financial relationship, but in the ethical repercussions.

  • Conflict with what? are you concerned about of interest in publishing results? Writing a proposal? Different journals, funding agencies, and institutions have specific rules about reporting conflicts of interest and the context matters. – Brian Borchers Apr 17 at 16:36
  • Right, in terms of disclosing conflicts of interest, it depends on the platform. The situation that I described is not considered a financial interest according to this FAQ page by UCSD, for example. Even if I did have a financial interest worth reporting, it would be a totally different question if any of those actually did create a conflict of interest. However, in my situation, although I do not have any reportable financial interests, I actually may have a conflict of interest, which feels counter intuitive. – naco Apr 17 at 18:58
  • I'd also note that reporting your source of funding from industry can be a positive addition to your presentations. Real businesses are interested in supporting your work with their own money, meaning you are potentially much closer to making a real impact. – A Simple Algorithm Apr 17 at 22:51
  • If you are currently at a US institution, you need to contact your FCOI office to discuss. They have policies and procedures to help you. As foreign influence is becoming a bigger deal, things like FCOI are now much more interesting to the government. If your company was a subsidiary (unbeknownst to you) of a Chinese company, e.g., there could be a problem. It's not only about your own ethics, the govt is now wary of foreign companies post-Huawei's spying debacle. Talking your situation out with a qualified person at your institution is the right choice here. You can also Google their policy. – yourfriendlyresearchadmin Apr 18 at 5:14
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Yes, this is a potential conflict of interest. You specifically refer to working on industry-sponsored projects in addition to your salary being paid by an industry sponsor (even if indirectly): both can be perceived as conflicts.

Since your position is contingent on the industry funds, it would be possible for you to lose your position if the sponsor was unhappy with the results you produced.

That doesn't mean your work is by rule dishonest or tainted, but it means that for people to properly interpret the meaning of your work they should be aware of how you were funded: that's the purpose of conflict of interest disclosure. You aren't saying that the work was unethically influenced, but you are allowing others to make that determination on their own.

As @BrianBorchers pointed out in a comment, the importance of this particular conflict depends on the rules for reporting conflicts of interest in whatever context you are talking about. In general, though, it's better to err on the side of disclosure.

To clarify further, if you are asking whether you are legally required to declare a conflict (for example, to abide by US federal law) then your question is probably off-topic for this site and you should instead be consulting with staff and training materials at your university that determine what is a reportable conflict of interest. My answer should be interpreted according to the question you asked, which is whether you had a potential conflict of interest.


In response to your edit, and your comment that indicated you weren't aware of exactly where your funding was coming at the time: I think you can relax a bit and not worry too much about this potential conflict, as long as when you present your research either in talks or in published work that you make sure it is clear that the work itself was funded by an industry sponsor, even if no improper behavior actually occurred. I would definitely put it in a disclosure slide if you are talking about work related to the company that funded you and the work. If you are talking about anything unrelated to that project then I see no need to disclose: you have no continuing ongoing financial interest and there is no conflict of interests on an unrelated project.

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    @Buffy "Assuming that my position couldn't exist without the industry research grants received by my PI" and "worked on various projects, many of which happened to be industry sponsored" are both reasons for a conflict. I don't know where you are reading that OP was not paid from the grant: OP was just not paid directly by the company. If OP's position would exist without grants and they worked on non-industry projects they could make a stronger argument for a lack of conflict. – Bryan Krause Apr 17 at 16:54
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    If you are paid by the university rather than the grant specifically, then there is no inducement for misbehavior. An alternate view seems to imply that every researcher has a conflict if they work on any funded project no matter how the funds are managed. I would agree with you only if you can trace the funds from the company directly to the recipient. This is the case for the PI, but not the postdoc. Maybe we have a different of view due to different fields. If the PI hired you with grant funds then sure, otherwise no. Look at the accounting. – Buffy Apr 17 at 17:04
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    @Buffy How is there no inducement for misbehavior if your position would not exist without the industry sponsorship? That means the industry partner can effectively fire you by withdrawing sponsorship. Universities typically have rules for how funds from industry sources are received and allocated to reduce the likelihood of such a quid pro quo relationship, but that doesn't remove the duty to report a conflict. In the title of the question in addition to the quotes I already copied: my PI received research grants from a company to be able to pay my postdoc salary. – Bryan Krause Apr 17 at 17:07
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    @naco Are you asking because you are wondering about your personal ethical responsibilities or about legal ones? – Bryan Krause Apr 17 at 19:18
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    @BryanKrause I am interested in the ethical responsibilities, and whether or not I should put this on my disclosures slide the next time I present my postdoc work. I am not concerned about the legal side of it. – naco Apr 17 at 19:25
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Just because you were funded by a grant that was sponsored by an industry, doesn't mean you are in conflict. It is situational. For example, when you publish your results about product/method X being better than product Y, and product X was developed by your funding sponsor, then it is a conflict of interest because it might be perceived as your results being influenced due to your funding. And you have to (should) declare it. Whereas, if you are working on a project looking at something totally unrelated to what company does or produce, then you still declare where your funding came from, but you are not in conflict of interest.

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    I agree, but in my specific case, it was definitely related, and the entire team's work was much influenced by the collaboration with the industry. To be even more specific, my time was allocated to different studies, percent-wise, which probably corresponded to how much of my salary came from which. This is probably true, but only remains an assumption. It is never explicitly revealed as "x amount of your salary comes from study y" etc. Each study, respectively, was trying to prove the efficacy of the company's product. – naco Apr 17 at 19:03
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While I continue to disagree that Bryan Krause is necessarily correct and would need much more information on the actual funding chain to make a determination, I will offer the following advice.

Whether or not it is a real conflict of interest, your career would probably be better served by assuming that it is, rather than the opposite. This is, perhaps, an overly conservative approach, but it is safer for you to state it as a possible conflict than to deny that it is unless you can determine otherwise.

Thus, in my view, the theoretical and philosophical view may be in conflict with the practical view, you would be best served by taking a cautious stance. You are the one that is at risk here, not the commentators, so you should protect your reputation as best you can.

Your PI, of course, may have something to say about this issue.

A conflict of interest arises when you receive something of value as an inducement to provide a particular answer in your research, whether that particular answer is specified or not.

One can have an issue, even when doing proper research as exemplified by the following. Suppose a company (say, big tobacco) provides funding for 100 separate statistical studies. In the nature of things, some of those will produce results different from those of the population as a whole, say five of the 100. If you aren't allowed to publish separately, the company can then advertise only those studies which match its desired outcome, even though all 100 researchers carried out their studies completely honestly. In fact, this sort of thing seems to have happened in the past, hence the caution required of honest researchers. You don't even have to "bend to the will" of the funders to have a bad outcome here. Statistics itself leads to such a result unless all of the studies can be published.

  • First of all, amazing answer. I think this is the stance I want as a researcher. My PI made me aware of this situation a year after the fact, which is the reason why I actually raised this question. I feel that postdocs and other study staff may be treated a bit unfairly in this sense, given that these decisions happen beyond their control and a consent is never obtained. – naco Apr 17 at 18:45
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    I'd argue that "A conflict of interest arises when you receive something of value as an inducement to provide a particular answer in your research" is a very conservative view of conflict of interest. The conflict arises when there is a possible perception not only when there is an actual inducement. If your spouse is the very best person for the job you are still conflicted if you are on the hiring committee. If a company gives you money to do research in the area of their products and then walks away and has zero further influence on the research process there is still a conflict. – Bryan Krause Apr 17 at 18:57
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    @BryanKrause, you have conflated the perception of a conflict with the actual conflict. They aren't the same. – Buffy Apr 17 at 19:07
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    That is not the typical interpretation. Quoted from my institution's conflict policies: "Conflicts of interest: represent a state of affairs, not behavior, frequently involve perceptions, and are judged by others, not by those directly involved." I have looked at several sources for definitions of conflict of interest and not a single one required behavior to be actually influenced for the conflict to exist: it is the interests that are conflicting, for which there only needs to be a relationship. – Bryan Krause Apr 17 at 19:09
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    At my (U.S., R1) university, as in @BryanKrause's, it is as much the (possible) perception as actions or actual conflict. – paul garrett Apr 17 at 19:33

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