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Looking for your advice on best practices on how to avoid conflicts of research.

The facts:

  • Researcher is a director of a research institute on campus.
  • Researcher has a start-up company involved in same research as his university research.
  • Researcher uses this company as a way to get Small Business Innovation Research/Small Business Technology Transfer (SBIR/STTR) grants to fund his lab under subcontracts.
  • Researcher has company located on campus in university sponsored incubator.
  • Researcher employs a post-doc and shares this post doc with his company – funding of post-doc is 50/50 between the company and his research center.

  • Researcher's lab members go between his lab and the company lab space freely.

  • Researcher is interested in submitting closely related grants through his research center and through his company as SBIR/STTR.

What are best practices or rules to put in place to minimize conflicts of interest in such a scenario?

  • 2
    At the institutions I'm familiar with (large, public R1 universities in the US), there are institutional conflict of interest (COI) policies and procedures in place which must be followed to handle various situations that come up, including the situation you describe. I suggest you contact your COI office for more information about navigating your specific situation. – Mad Jack Aug 17 '15 at 16:54
  • Thanks... we are in the process of updating ICOI policies and was looking for suggestions to include. – Conflicted Aug 17 '15 at 17:14
  • I'm no expert; I just know where to go if I have a COI problem. :) You may find some useful links in this Google search I threw together. – Mad Jack Aug 17 '15 at 17:23
  • Also, it is my opinion (others may disagree, of course) that helping you sketch out COI policy updates is out of scope for this site. – Mad Jack Aug 17 '15 at 17:54
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    I think that general suggestions for COI policies can very well be on-topic – though it may take some time until somebody answers them. However, What are your thoughts on this scenario? and Have you navigated through this before? are poll-like questions and thus no good fit for this site. I am therefore taking the liberty to remove them. (cc @MadJack) – Wrzlprmft Aug 18 '15 at 6:50
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First of all, you should know that this sort of setup—a researcher has a side business very closely related to his research—is quite common. It does sound like there are a few unusual details in your story, but the overall picture is standard fare for most universities.

The only direct answer that I can think of is to work very closely with both your advisor and whatever department your university has set up to handle this sort of thing. I went to Pitt, which has an entire department set up to assist with questions like yours. My advisor had a very good working relationship with the university, and I found these people very helpful. You should be able to find this within your university (if it exists) by talking to your department chair. On a very similar vein, Pitt, had a distinct Conflict of Interest department set up for these types of matters as well. They can answer questions.

NOTE: talk to your advisor before doing anything!!! The chance that the university is unaware of this is pretty slim, particularly if he has an SBIR grant. He has probably worked out all the necessary details a long time ago. If you go around raising alarms where none should be raised, you'll end up seriously annoying your advisor and looking like an idiot. You don't want to do that.

  • I agree that it is common, but that doesn't make it right. It certain cases it is ok, but often they are used as cost mitigation in for profit businesses. This is wrong since graduate students are paid low wages and provided almost none of the typical legal protections of a normal employee since graduate students are students not employees in the United States. I've seen a lot of outside contracts come into my department, for projects which employed graduate students, and which were not worthy of a thesis and some of which restricted publication entirely, which really is just exploitation. – daaxix Aug 25 '15 at 22:12
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    @daaxix - What you are describing is definitely a problem, but that is by no means the norm. Anecdotally, I know that both my advisor and two other advisors in the department had their own companies, employed their students, and kept everything very fair and appropriate; pay was split, time was split, and resources were separated appropriately. It can go both ways. – eykanal Aug 25 '15 at 22:49
  • and where they paid a market wage for the work done for the outside companies? – daaxix Aug 26 '15 at 18:16
  • @daaxix - In all instances that I was aware of, including my own, yes. – eykanal Aug 26 '15 at 20:25

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