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Nov 09

No. 2: Research Compliance: Conflicts of Interest

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Research Compliance: Conflicts of Interest

Reader Question: The sales manager of an equipment manufacturer from whom our lab has made large purchases has emailed that he would like to take me and my grad students out to a nice dinner during the upcoming national meeting of our research specialty. We obviously are already good customers. Should academics like us accept such? Why or why not? Also would it matter if we were merely "prospective" customers instead of proven ones?

Expert Comments: Knowing how to handle vendors who pass out dinner invites, ball game tickets or “lunch for the lab” is today’s hot button conflicts-of-interest (COI) issue. This conundrum can be especially tricky if you genuinely like the vendor’s products and have a great sales rep who you’ve worked with for a long time (and maybe, have even gone out to dinner with in the past!)

Most institutions’ COI policies have provisions that flatly prohibit taking gratuities from vendors, or at least require employees to avoid business relationship that are, or may appear to be, a conflict of interest.  Your “nice dinner” would certainly violate any blanket prohibition on gifts, and likely violates the second, especially when viewed through the eyes of a competing vendor.  You might be tempted to argue that “it’s only dinner,” especially if your institution allows you to take “nominal” gifts.  Your common sense, however, should tell you loud and clear that dinner at a nice restaurant with several grad students is NEVER going to fall under any de minimus exception.

Perhaps even more importantly, you should remember to take the “Newspaper Test.”  Ask yourself, would I want to read about this dinner date on the front page of my morning paper under the headline “Undue Vendor Influence Uncovered in University Purchasing Practices”? After all, COI isn’t just about actual impropriety, it’s about the appearance of impropriety too. Being technically in compliance with a rule isn’t going to help you much in the court of public opinion once the news machine starts churning.

Finally, never underestimate the anger of a “vendor scorned” – if another vendor finds out that his competitor got the sale after taking you out to an upscale steakhouse, you can bet that a complaint to your procurement department or counsel’s office will shortly follow.  Naturally you would plead your "uprightness," but the situation can be made to look ugly for you.  Don’t take any comfort from the fact that you might be an old customer that the vendor is “thanking” for prior purchases.  In either case the losing vendor is apt to be angry and possibly vindictive.

You can see it follows that you must be especially scrupulous about your actions when dealing with vendors competing for your business, whether old or new. Why expose yourself to this peril?  After all, is a nice meal out worth having your integrity questioned?

So here's an idea.  Graciously turn down the meal invitation, and let your sales rep know that with all the money he’s saving, he should be able to convert those "dinner dollars" into an even-lower price bid the next time your lab goes shopping with him.

Comments by Kristin H. West, J.D., Associate V.P. and Director, Office of Research Compliance, Emory University Atlanta

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Comments (11)
written by Ye Curmudgeon, November 06, 2009
Most PIs have a salary too low to permit fancy dinners, and Heaven knows grad students barely scrape by on their meagre stipends. I for one feel its very mean for campus czars in fancy offices to deny the research team this free perk.
written by Henri FoieGras, November 06, 2009
I have read that the grateful French wine industry sent some free cases of product to Louis Pasteur when his microbiology recommendations saved them. I guess the "conflict of interst" police would arrest him if he were alive today.
written by Dalton Smith, PhD, November 06, 2009
OK, no dinner. But can I accept a V.I.P. low-interset home loan the way several Congressmen did?
written by Anonymous, November 10, 2009
Every suite and box in every pro sports stadium in the country is dedicated to this sort of "entertaining", it is absolutely routine throughout the corporate world. How about the poor academics getting a tiny piece of the pie for once? Come on Ms. Curmudgeon!
written by William Gerin, Ph.D., , November 10, 2009
There is always a fine line walked in relations between suppliers and customers, in terms of what is appropriate and what represents a conflict of interest. In addition, the perceived appropriateness, or lack thereof, of such dealings can be equally or more important. In this case, I would take a very conservative approach and suggest that although a dinner probably is not going to determine whether the supplier gets the next order, you are still accepting a favor from a company to whom you have the power to award a sales contract. Your funding source might not be happy about this, and when that source is NIH, you run the risk of annoying a federal agency, never a good idea. If you think about it, a nice dinner for the lab and a junket to Hawaii differ only in magnitude, not in principle. Go to dinner, but insist on separate checks.
written by Pound Sterling, November 10, 2009
We need a system for research grants like the "expense allowances" for our Parliment. Tack on a "slush fund" for permitted reimbursements, but in practice allow the PI to spend those monies on whatever he wants. It will take 10-20 years for scandals to build up and spoil the fun.
written by Smythe-Button, November 10, 2009
If you are as careless with your expense reimbursement claims as you are in spelling "Parliament" you deserve to be caught up by Inland Revenue.
written by lroth, November 10, 2009
I agree. Going out to diner with a vendor with graduate students would be a clear cut conflict of interest.
written by Hugh Buckingham, November 11, 2009
Opinionator: Under NO circumstances should the investigators of a research project allow themselves to be compromised by those who PAY for that research, or by those whose profit margins are in any way effected by that research. Otherwise, depending upon whose side one may be on, the Cable New Channels will squawk and squawk and squawk. And, the sum result will be that the reseacher went to bed with the corporate entities who supported the research or, again, whose profit margin was affected by the findings of that research. In sum, think CIGARETTE INDUSTRY; think PHARMACEUTICAL COMPANIES, & cetera. Hugh W. Buckingham, Jr. Baton Rouge, LA
written by Dr. Deek, December 02, 2009
""Squawk"" ?. He could just acknowledge this free lunch on the resultant publication (I thank Smith Kline Inc. for buying my dinner at the Society of Neurosurgeons v Rocket Scientists meeting last month). Get real. Someone offers you dinner to get you as a coustomer, so what. How is that going to influence your moral character? Denis English, Ph.D.
written by x-Program Director, December 07, 2009
This question may have a clear answer in some rulebook. E.g., when I was an NSF Program Director, and I visited a grantee, I was allowed to accept snacks that I ate standing up, but was forbidden to accept a sit-down meal. Also, there was an excellent NSF lawyer available to provide quick written clear opinions on any ambiguous case. After serving at NSF, just reading about what politicians get away with makes me feel icky.

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