31 August 2010

What is a Conflict of Interest?

Several conversations that I have had off-blog suggest to me that the notion of "conflict of interest" with respect to scientific advisory panels is not well understood.  The IPCC does not presently have any COI policies so it is impossible to judge whether its chairman, or anyone else, has a conflict.  However, under the application of COI policies of other bodies, such as the UN, WMO and NAS, it is indisputable that the IPCC chairman has conflicts of interest.  This is so patently obvious that is not really worth debating.  Whether the IPCC will implement similar policies , and if they do, whether its current chair will be ruled exempt from them are entirely different questions.

Here is how the US National Academy of Sciences defines the concept with respect to financial interests (PDF):
It is essential that the work of committees of the institution used in the development of reports not be compromised by any significant conflict of interest. For this purpose, the term "conflict of interest" means any financial or other interest which conflicts with the service of the individual because it (1) could significantly impair the individual's objectivity or (2) could create an unfair competitive advantage for any person or organization. Except for those situations in which the institution determines that a conflict of interest is unavoidable and promptly and publicly discloses the conflict of interest, no individual can be appointed to serve (or continue to serve) on a committee of the institution used in the development of reports if the individual has a conflict of interest that is relevant to the functions to be performed.

General Principles

The term "conflict of interest" means something more than individual bias. There must be an interest, ordinarily financial, that could be directly affected by the work of the committee. Conflict of interest requirements are objective and prophylactic. They are not an assessment of one's actual behavior or character, one's ability to act objectively despite the conflicting interest, or one's relative insensitivity to particular dollar amounts of specific assets because of one's personal wealth. Conflict of interest requirements are objective standards designed to eliminate certain specific, potentially compromising situations from arising, and thereby to protect the individual, the other members of the committee, the institution, and the public interest. The individual, the committee, and the institution should not be placed in a situation where others could reasonably question, and perhaps discount or dismiss, the work of the committee simply because of the existence of such conflicting interests.

The term "conflict of interest" applies only to current interests. It does not apply to past interests that have expired, no longer exist, and cannot reasonably affect current behavior. Nor does it apply to possible interests that may arise in the future but do not currently exist, because such future interests are inherently speculative and uncertain. For example, a pending formal or informal application for a particular job is a current interest, but the mere possibility that one might apply for such a job in the future is not a current interest.

The term "conflict of interest" applies not only to the personal financial interests of the individual but also to the interests of others with whom the individual has substantial common financial interests if these interests are relevant to the functions to be performed. Thus, in assessing an individual's potential conflicts of interest, consideration must be given not only to the interests of the individual but also to the interests of the individual's spouse and minor children, the individual's employer, the individual's business partners, and others with whom the individual has substantial common financial interests. Consideration must also be given to the interests of those for whom one is acting in a fiduciary or similar capacity (e.g., being an officer or director of a corporation, whether profit or nonprofit, or serving as a trustee).

Financial Interests

The term "conflict of interest" as used herein ordinarily refers to financial conflicts of interest. In assessing potential conflicts of interest in connection with an individual's service on a committee of the institution used in the development of reports for sponsors, particular attention will be given to the following kinds of financial interests if they are relevant to the functions to be performed: employment relationships (including private and public sector employment and self-employment); consulting relationships (including commercial and professional consulting and service arrangements, scientific and technical advisory board memberships, and serving as an expert witness in litigation); stocks, bonds, and other financial instruments and investments including partnerships; real estate investments; patents, copyrights, and other intellectual property interests; commercial business ownership and investment interests; services provided in exchange for honorariums and travel expense reimbursements; research funding and other forms
of research support.
UPDATE:  A colleague remind me of this useful definition, posted long ago on Prometheus:
“A conflict of interest is a set of conditions in which professional judgment concerning a primary interest (such as a patient’s welfare or the validity of research) tends to be unduly influenced by a secondary influence (such as financial gain)… The secondary interest is usually not illegitimate in itself, and indeed it may even be a necessary and desirable part of professional practice. Only its relative weight in professional decisions is problematic. The aim is not to eliminate or necessarily to reduce financial gain or other secondary interests (such as preference for family and friends or the desire for prestige and power). It is rather to prevent these secondary factors from dominating or appearing to dominate the relevant primary interest in the making of professional decisions.”

Reference: Thompson D. F., 1993. Understanding Financial Conflicts of Interest. The New England Journal of Medicine, 329:573-576.

11 comments:

  1. How can the IPCC ever be made up of scientists who meet this sort of COI criteria? The funding available to scientists for climate research will be heavily influenced by how alarming the IPCC report is. How can you escape this (admittedly slightly indirect) financial interest in the IPCC?

    This is a criticism applicable not only to the mainstream/alarmist (delete as you see fit) scientists - where would CA, WUWT, Bishop Hill etc be without an alarming IPCC report?

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  2. It's not just external funding, by this definition salaries of any working scientist or engineer or even political scientist also constitute a conflict. In short, Pachauri has your pants in a twist and you are trying to twist everything to satisfy that.

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  3. Oil connections are a conflict of interest in the global warming (carbon trading) game.


    Glorioil


    Dr. R.K. Pachauri -Founder and Science Advisor

    Rajendra K. Pachauri is the Director-General of TERI (The Energy Research Institute). He is an internationally recognized figure in energy and sustainable development, having served on numerous boards and committees as Director of the Oil and Natural Gas Company of India; Director of the Indian Oil Corporation, Limited; Chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, established by World Meteorological Organization and Nations Environment Programme; Director of the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies (IGES), Environment Agency, Government of Japan; Board of the International Solar Energy Society; Member of the World Resources Institute Council; Work Group Chairman of World Energy Council Committee on Developing Countries; President of the Asian Energy Institute; Member of the Panel of Eminent Persons on Power, Ministry of Power; Member of the Advisory Board on Energy, Government of India reporting to the Prime Minister of India; Member, National Environmental Council, Government of India under the Chairmanship of the Prime Minister of India; Member of the Oil Industry Restructuring Group, for the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas, Government of India; Member of the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister of India; and a Member of the International Advisory Board of Toyota Motors.


    http://www.glorioil.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=7&Itemid=10

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  4. I think that the issue that Tom brings up is one reason why some have been reluctant to bring COI policies into force in the IPCC. COI as it applies to politicians is not quite the same for science. Such policies cannot be perfect, and tighter policies have the result of disallowing participation from people whose contribution could be very valuable. So COI isn't a silver bullet, but that isn't a reason to avoid it completely.

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  5. I don't know if Eli has ever served on a US Federal Government advisory panel. I have, for several different agencies, and I know the COI guidelines in general forbid one to evaluate proposals that would benefit one's own home institution, which seems to be the gist of the problem with Pachauri.

    NIH specifically excludes panelists who "Serve[s] as an officer, director, member, owner, trustee, expert, advisor, consultant (with or without compensation), or employee of an applicant or other organization that would be affected by his or her decision."

    The DOE forbids review of applications if the application under review "is similar to projects being conducted by the reviewer or by the reviewer’s organization." At NSF, a reviewer annot review a proposal if:
    "...the organization where the reviewer is employed, has an arrangement for future employment or is negotiating for employment". And so on...

    In other words, it is the norm for the purposes of scientific review in the US that the interests of one's home institution are treated the same way as one's own interests. By this standard, if TERI benefits from the IPCC, Pachauri has a conflict.

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  6. The continuous pleading for special disposition by Climate Scientists for Climate Science in cases of the most simple and mundane procedures is amazing. Procedures easily understood and implemented by 100s of 1000s, maybe even millions, of employed personal around the entire planet. It sometimes seems that it's necessary for Climate Science to rule by authority, and at the same time set its own boundaries, in order to survive.

    Does anyone know of any other examples in which first FOIA and now COI procedures have been revealed to be unnecessary by the very organizations to which these Federal Laws are intended to be applied?

    And my favorite, these same organizations are unable to perform the simplest Verification tests of the most simple software they use.

    We Are Climate Science, seems to be the answer to every issue.

    I call hyper meta bull.

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  7. While I don't discount financial conflicts, what about professional conflicts of interest? A lead author who is in charge of a section to which his/her papers contribute, is subject to stresses on his/her impartiality.

    In my view, this is as important as financial disinterest. Appointing non-involved lead authors/editors also would seem to have the salutary effect of exposing diversity of viewpoints where they exist. A lead author with an established stake in the debate is less likely to give a fair amount of space to competing viewpoints.

    However, this boat seems to have already sailed for AR5, unless the IPCC take the review to heart and re-start the selection process, even though it may result in a delay to its publication schedule.

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  8. Yes Gerald, you leave the room, but things are more complex than that. Roger's Rule is that your institution cannot benefit from the funding agency. Wanna ask if anyone from the U of Colorado ever is Pielkethically allowed to sit on any review panel? Guess not.

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  9. George Monbiot claims that Pachauri has no conflicts of interest.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/georgemonbiot/2010/sep/01/rajendra-pachauri-ipcc

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  10. Richard Tol

    Monbiot is lying. It's what he does. It's what they all do at the Guardian. It's totally shameless. They are/were sponsored by Shell to promote global warming, carbon trading.

    The only other thing they have been similarly excited about is Barack Obama. The upper middle class icon who ... smokes cigarettes !

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  11. When Climate Science and Climate Scientists consider fundamental issues like FOI and COI it seems their responses are; 1. Fatality Flawed, 2. based on Made Up Stuff, and 3. Not Even Wrong.

    But, on the other hand, they might Be Consistent With something somewhere.

    Kindly excuse me, I have tried to resist all day and have failed.

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