What is a Conflict of Interest?

posted in: Commentary | 9

Over the course of the past few months, several GMO researchers and/or advocates had their emails seized under Freedom of Information Acts (FOIA). The requests to view the emails came from US Right to Know (USRTK), an organization who is heavily funded by the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) and whose goal is to “expose what the food industry doesn’t want us to know“. The OCA is one of the strongest voices opposing GMOs (it also happens to oppose vaccines, too).

The emails from one scientist uncovered that he had his expenses paid for by Monsanto when he traveled for talks (which is a standard industry practice), and that his department received a $25K grant from Monsanto for Science Communication. The public outrage is over the fact that he claimed not to have any sort of relationship with Monsanto.

In light of this, there has been much talk on what constitutes a Conflict of Interest (COI) and what should be disclosed. This list from the journal PLoS on COIs has been circulated in the Twittersphere as an example of what may constitute a COI. I looked over the list and was left confused, primarily because of this highlighted phrase: “A competing interest is anything that interferes with, or could reasonably be perceived as interfering with, the full and objective presentation, peer review, editorial decision-making, or publication of research or non-research articles submitted to PLOS.”

“Relationships” with industry

Many of the articles that have reviewed the so-called “FOIA-gate” state that the scientists involved did not break any of the COI and disclosure rules in their institutions. Had these scientists been in the private sector, the “scandal” would have tapered out right there. However, the controversy has continued as many claim that the scientists could have been more open: that the debate over GMOs is a public debate and the public has different definitions for terms such as “relationship”. The issue with this argument is that if you follow the activists who are the loudest voices in the GMO debate and who are driving the attempts to discredit these scientists, anything could be perceived by them to be a conflict of interest. Even if you ignore these voices, we all perceive things differently and, therefore, we will have different perspectives on what may or may not be a conflict of interest.

Let’s imagine for a moment that these FOIAs had been requested against scientists involved in educating the public on vaccine safety, but that none of the scientists were directly involved in vaccine development. If one of these scientists received a standard 10% discount on a run-of-the-mill enzyme from Roche, would that be a COI given that Roche is also involved in vaccine development? If one of the scientists had a boxed lunch at a conference seminar hosted by VWR, who sells a lot of lab equipment and plasticware (including syringes), should that be disclosed? If a researcher had a student who graduated and then went on to work for Merck, would the researcher have a relationship with Merck? Would that relationship suddenly vanish if the former student moved on to a different company? If so, do researchers have to keep track of where all their former students and friends work to know whether or not they have relationships with different business sectors? I’m sure that each one of these would be perceived to be a conflict of interest in certain circles.

Getting back to the GMO-debate and COI, my husband worked in marketing for a major fast food company ten years ago. I’m sure that many anti-GMO activists would consider that to be a COI if I were a GMO research scientist. What if I said that the fast food company was Chipotle? All of a sudden, that would no longer be a problem given Chipotle’s shunning of GMOs. PLoS calls for disclosing “Personal convictions (political, religious, ideological, or other) related to a paper’s topic that might interfere with an unbiased publication process (at the stage of authorship, peer review, editorial decision-making, or publication)”. Does that mean that if I were an academic asked to review a paper related to the safety of organic food, would I need to disclose that I refuse to shop at Whole Foods? Is there anything more ideological than refusing to shop at Whole Foods because of the company’s stance on GMOs and their support of misleading campaigns against biotech crops?

Who defines COI?

Ivory Towers by Colin Smith via Wikimedia.

So, my question to the academic community is this: why are you defining conflict of interest based on the biases of the public? What I’m seeing is that scientists involved in research or outreach with the public on topics where we genuinely need more scientists involved are being penalized by having to disclose far more than what their institutions demand or, more importantly, than what is demanded by scientists in less controversial fields, because of public perception. What on earth would motivate an upcoming scientist to engage with the public if these are the standards that they will be held to? We all know that we need more scientists engaging with the public and outreach, and this is a very strong deterrent.

Dr Kevin Folta recently announced that all his expenses would be outlined online and this is being hailed as a huge step in the right direction. I disagree and think that this will lead to ridiculously long disclosure statements that scientists feel compelled to provide “just to be safe”. Check out this article for an excellent example of what I consider to be an over-the-top disclosure statement. At the same time, I’d wager that even if scientists were to provide income tax and banking documents, it will not satisfy those who are quick to call “shill”: they’ll just come up with some other theory like “the Monsanto office in Switzerland is depositing money into your spouse’s Cayman Islands account”.

What’s the solution?

Pizza by Lucas Richarz via Flickr.
The end of pizza at grad school events? Say it isn’t so!   Pizza by Lucas Richarz via Flickr.

My personal perspective is that all scientists need to be held to the same standards and scientists in specific fields should not be penalized. Holding all scientists to the same standards that Dr McGuire is being held to, who is another of the scientists in FOIA-gate, would mean changing the way we engage with industry partners and how marketing is done in biotech. No more free t-shirts, industry sponsored journal-club with pizza, awesome eppendorf pens that look like pipettes, mouse-pads that look like petri-dishes, or reagent discounts from a vendor for being a “loyal and preferred customer”.

Again, I’m not saying that this isn’t the direction that academia should move towards, but either a) it should be done universally rather than targeting a select few or b) academia should push back and educate the public on the relationship between academia and the private sector. When my husband reviewed this article, the other option he offered was 100% public funding of research so that no industry funding or association would be needed. But I’m not sure that’s plausible given the fact that nearly every reagent, instrument, and often samples that researchers use are made by the private sector. In the case of private-Ag/public-sector relationships, 100% public funding of research would mean that tax dollars would pay for the testing of Monsanto products, and that public researchers would be the exclusive developers of new plant varieties, neither of which seem right to me.

The bigger issue in my opinion is that if COIs are not clearly defined and detailed, but are left to what is “perceived”, researchers and scientists are left open to allegations of fraud. Going back to the example of my husband’s former job and the hypothetical scenario where I work as a public research scientist, if his employment in the fast food industry were a genuine conflict of interest for me, I would not have seen it because I’m too close to the issue and I’d probably feel that his place of employment and income would not affect my research outcomes. However, if we leave it up to what people perceive to be COI, then how is any researcher supposed to assess their biases and COIs when they’re all too close to the issues to realize that it might be a problem? Would an editor of a journal have to sit down with every author of a paper for a few hours and discuss the researcher’s private life to determine if there’s any potential conflict of interest before a paper gets published?

Unintended consequences

Perception-based COI analysis may have serious unintended consequences. Even as anti-GMO advocates attempt to shed light on the greater discussion of biotechnology, they are contributing to polarization on the topic and may push scientists out of the discussion before they even get started. As Robin Bisson said in his recent post, We need to talk about Kevin: “Scrutinizing scientists in public for their communications activities, however strange, gambles with the willingness of scientists to talk about their work.”

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Layla Parker-Katiraee holds a PhD in Molecular Genetics from the University of Toronto and a Bachelors degree in biochemistry from the University of Western Ontario. She is currently a Staff Scientist in DNA Sequencing Product Development. All views and opinions expressed are her own.