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I am working at a teaching-focused university. Recently I secured some research grants from my native country. This small private research group supports early-career researchers and just sent the money to my account in my native country. Basically, I didn't have to declare it but I did anyway. The university wanted it to get refunded and sent directly to it, which I was reluctant to do - too small an amount for all those hassles. I decided to conduct the survey experiment on a self-funded basis from my UK account.

The survey started last week and the university suddenly told me not to use any university resources like Qualtrics. Then they withdrew my ethics form which was already approved. I feel like the university takes my research data as a hostage for my research grant in return.

Is staff not allowed to conduct any research without an external fund? Is it not possible for a researcher to pay for the participants privately?

What do ethics have to do with external funding? Does the research lose the university's support when the external grant disappears?

I am a foreign and early-career. Could anyone share your thoughts? I don't know what to do.

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    the answer depends upon your specific university's policies and laws. Science has had several articles about this like science.org/content/article/… Commented Dec 5, 2023 at 17:56
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    @RichardErickson Those sorts of arrangements have also been the subject of at least one Q&A here (that I answered): academia.stackexchange.com/questions/195238/… The situation OP describes seems a bit different to me, but it is possible that there is some overlap. Indeed, international funds can raise a variety of possible concerns whether or not the researchers realize ahead of time or intend to participate in any wrongdoing. Starting with small compromising gifts is common espionage tradecraft.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Dec 5, 2023 at 18:00
  • Thank you very much Richard Erickson and Bryan Krause for your answers.
    – army731
    Commented Dec 5, 2023 at 21:21

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It is standard that all grants go through the institution rather than directly to the investigator. The only exceptions I can think of involve direct reimbursement of costs like travel expenses that are paid by the individual for a business purpose, not research grants.

Remember that you are using a bunch of institutional resources that cost money: some examples from your post would include the time of the review board, the cost to license the software you use, other resources like your office and computer and the utility bills for electricity and heat or air conditioning, etc. The institution may allow their employees to use these things "for free"/without an explicit cost to the user, but they expect to cover those expenses within their internal accounting from a portion of all external grants received, regardless of the size of the grant.

It's important to follow your institution's requirements on this sort of thing and seek their guidance, even if it's a small amount, unless there is an explicit exemption granted to you. If you don't, you're likely to experience exactly the penalties/consequences you have experienced.

I didn't have to declare it but I did anyway

You almost certainly are required to declare grant awards to your employer. You are also likely required to document received funds for tax and regulatory purposes.

Is it not possible for a researcher to pay for the participants privately?

Acceptable sources of funding are up to the board that reviews your research, but it's possible that the transfer or appearance of transfer of funds directly from a researcher to a participant could create ethical problems where the research participants may feel a direct debt to the researcher. There may also be tax and other concerns. Money from international sources may create further complications.

You need to use the professional regulatory resources at your institution to help you conduct research according to all regulations. Even if the potential issues are relatively minor, it's normally up to an independent institutional committee to make these decisions; it's not safe to let researchers make their own decisions about research ethics.

Receiving funds creates a conflict of interest situation: the educational and research interests of your institution come into conflict with your interest in receiving future funds and the funding source's interests (which are unclear without more information). A conflict of interest does not mean that wrongdoing has occurred, but it is necessary to avoid even the appearance of wrongdoing and to mitigate any concerns that could cause harm to research participants or to the reputation of the institution. Any secrecy/lack of clear disclosure increases the likelihood that others will perceive a higher risk of damaging conflicts of interest.

It doesn't sound like you've been fired from your position, so that suggests the institution would still like to work with you: you'll need to get guidance from your department and your institution's research support people on what your next steps are to come into compliance. You're going to have to trust and obey them. Continuing to make decisions based on what you guess or assume is correct is likely to cause you more harm and could include losing your position which might also impact your immigration/visa status.

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  • Also, see concerns about laws like this science.org/content/article/… Commented Dec 5, 2023 at 17:56
  • Thank you very much, Bryan Krause, for your answer. It indeed helped my perspective. I decided to put my head down and follow what the university said.
    – army731
    Commented Dec 5, 2023 at 21:25
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According to the UK Research Integrity Office:

Organizations and researchers must recognise that competing interests (i.e., personal or organisational considerations, including but not limited to rivalry and financial matters) can inappropriately affect research. Competing interests, also known as conflicts of interest (COIs) must be identified, declared, and addressed to avoid poor practice in research or potential misconduct.


In the United States, the National Institutes of Health notes:

While there is no regulatory requirement for IRBs to consider investigators financial conflict of interest, the protection of human subjects requires objectivity in communicating risks, selecting subjects, promoting informed consent, and gathering, analyzing and reporting data. IRBs should refer to their institution’s policies and procedures for identifying and managing conflicts of interest. In some cases, IRBs are incorporating conflict of interest issues in their deliberations.

It sounds from your question that you were actively not complying with your institution's policy for managing potential competing financial interests. Admittedly, I am not as familiar with UK human subjects research regulations as I am with the US, but if an ethics body considers financial conflicts of interest in their determination and then you actively subvert their procedures, it makes perfect sense to me that they would revoke approval.

By your own admission, you "decided to conduct the survey experiment [anyway]".

So what can you do? Contact the ethics committee and ask them. More than likely, they provided you with a letter with instructions on how to get in compliance.

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  • Thank you Ian for your detailed information. It helped widen my view. I decided to follow the university's instructions now.
    – army731
    Commented Dec 5, 2023 at 21:27

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