This faculty adviser in this role-play has a major conflict of interest, which puts the student in an awkward situation. If the conflict oversight committee hasn’t contacted the student already (an unfortunately common situation), they should have. In an ideal situation, every student affected by a potential conflict of interest should have some written guidance about what to expect and how to get advice if concerns arise.
One useful step is to find out if there are any written policies or guidelines about what students can expect in situations like this: for example, is there a meeting annually or every six months with the oversight committee or is a student simply informed about the option to contact the committee? Does the committee monitor students’ progress? The University’s interest here should be in assuring that the split interests of the faculty member do not adversely affect the progress of students.
One reason for the student to talk with the grad studies director first is that, if the student first meets with the adviser, the meeting might not go well (for example, the adviser gets annoyed at being questioned). This role-play can help the participants learn how to how to explore their options without making enemies. What would be appropriate to mention and what would not? What questions could the student ask that would be helpful and constructive?
A conflict of interest can arise whenever a person is in a position to influence university decisions in a way that provides or might provide personal financial benefit to the individual or members of his or her family. Conflicts of commitment, on the other hand, generally concern allocations of time and can arise whenever a person’s external commitments (whether or not compensated) interfere with the ability of the person to fulfill his or her employment obligations fully. Dilemmas like these often arise in situations where startup companies are formed to commercialize the results of more basic university research projects. The student is afraid that much of the work for the company will not advance his/her research, but feels compelled to do the work since next semester’s assistantship money will be split between the company and the adviser’s research lab. The student does not feel comfortable raising these concerns to the adviser.
Universities, and departments, are obligated to protect graduate students, post-docs and other employees in these situations. In an ideal circumstance, the University will have 1) reviewed all proposed arrangements according to prevailing national standards for propriety; 2) determined the arrangements to be in the best interests of the University and all University participants, including the students; and 3) established an ongoing review mechanism to oversee the arrangements and assure that their operation matches the written agreements made at the outset. At minimum, there should be a written and legally binding contract between the University and the company/faculty member setting out the acceptable boundaries of all activities. There are also often contracts in place to govern intellectual property rights and licensing.
Graduate students in such situations should know their roles and rights. Ideally, there should be a conflict oversight committee and a member of that committee should meet individually at least annually with each student in the lab at who is affected by this situation to maintain open lines of communication.
Gunsalus, C. K.; Loui, M. C.; and C. K. Gunsalus, M. C. Loui, and their students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, "Responsible Conduct of Research Role-Plays: Conflict of Interest" (2009). Ethics in Science and Engineering National Clearinghouse. 268.
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