conflict of Interest

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tzemlo's picture
conflict of Interest


Another topic to discuss in the bioethcis forum is Conflict of Interest...we could begin by discussing whether "scientists are corruptible" and what types of protections should be in place to address this issue.

Taking the old adage, invest in what you know; it would be logical to assume that those working in the life sciences would gravitate toward financial investments in the health care sector. This is not to say that insider knowledge is the motivating factor, but rather that if one is a scientist, one has a natural affinity for science and hence might favor science-related stocks.

However, when asked how much pharmaceutical and/or biotechnology stock NIH employees should be able to own, one-third of the respondents in a Science Advisory Board-sponsored Instant Poll cited that they should not own any. This assessment is even more conservative than the guidelines NIH has proposed, which limit such stock holdings to less than $15,000.

It appears that even the appearance of a conflict of interest is considered suspect in the research community. Do you think that because of this concern scientists would rather error on the side of caution than risk suspicion? I've found that since deciding such matters on a case-by-case basis is unrealistic, scientists, in general, favor broader and stricter regulations that would be applicable to all NIH employees.

Despite this stringent emphasis on ethics, nearly one-fifth of the 230+ polled believed the skys the limit and were not in favor of putting a monetary limit on NIH-employees health and tech stock holdings. These individuals expressed confidence in the integrity of the individual and believe that the government should not interfere with his or hers private financial decisions.

Tamara Zemlo, Ph.D., MPH

marcus muench
marcus muench's picture
You pose an interesting

You pose an interesting question and I'm surprised no one has taken the bait.

I had to think about my answer for a couple days after first reading your post. I must admit I'm still a little unsure of what my answer is, I guess I'm middle of the road on this issue - some limits but not an all out ban.

Personally, I work in the University setting and I don't own any tech or med stocks outside of what I may own as part of retirement investment funds. I wouldn't feel comportable owing any stock from a company that I may have business with. On the other hand, if I did have such stock, I would be required to declare it when writing grants, publishing papers or presenting work at a meeting. I find that to be fair and appropriate, but I wonder if that is ever in any way policed. I wouldn't want to prevent people from owing stock since I don't see how a person owning stock is much different than a PI getting money to do research ( and maybe pay their salary) from a company. There is lots of self-interst in keeping the company happy in that scenario and no one suggests that collaborations between universities and companies should stop. In fact they are encourged at multiple levels.

There is also a lot of research that comes from companies and, obviously, these researchers are motiviated to publish information that is positive for their company, their job and their stock options. Researchers in the private sector are a large part of the scientific community, why should they get to own stock in their work and researchers in the public sector be barred from owning stock? Again, full disclosure is the best answer since it lets the reader know the motivation behind the work.

Overall, I'm encourgaged by the number of researchers that would rather try and avoid any appearance of conflict of interest. This gives me hope that we don't have a problem on any major scale. In general, I think the pressures against being honest in science are tremendous gevin how much their is to ain from having grat data, yet overall I find the scientific community to be fairly honest in their conduct.

DD's picture
I would say in general

I would say in general scientists are honest people because in most cases they have no other choices but to present the correct data or to reproduce an experiment based on true and correct calculations. They cannot twist or change the end results for too long. Unfortunatelly, because they work in somehow not so honest and extremely challenging and competitive environments, they might loose their trust and faith in the system. Regarding having rights to obtain shares of companies they work at, I think everybody should get some shares based on years and position of their employment , which is the case in all companies that are public.

jachmoody's picture


I agree with your generalization, though just heard some surprising statistics about the percentage of scientists polled who admitted fudging data to please sponsers etc. It shouldn't be too surprising, I guess the peer review process doesn't always weed out the dishonesty because of the great expense involved in many research projects--trying to duplicate many is out of the question.


SanDiablo's picture
Saying that a life scientist

Saying that a life scientist shouldn't own biotech stock is like saying that a real estate agent shouldn't own land. By that reasoning, a CEO shouldn't be able to own stock in his/her OWN company, either! Why shouldn't you be able to use your knowledge and insight for personal gain? How is that different from using your knowledge and insight to gain a salary? Afterall, stock portfolio managers still own stock?

I believe it is possible to compartmentalize one's rationale for purchaisng an investment from one's rationale for evaluating a scientific study. However, I can certainly see where there is potential for corruption or at least the perception of corruption. Few scientists will lie or cheat to please an employer or sponsor, and many will stand up and speak out when coerced to do so (like with Merck and Vioxx.)

Insider trading laws are sticky. As I understand them it's ok to use information to buy a stock, but not to sell it. Scientists are often privvy to bad news long before the general population, so I suppose they should have to wait until such news is public before selling out. However, companies have a vested interest in keeping such information from public scrutiny (like Merck and Vioxx!)

I think it is deplorable that you should have to keep a stock that you know is rotten!

omid's picture
I have found out that

I have found out that scientists can be as dishonest or honest as anybody else out there working for corporate America. We used to vue scientists as extremely honorable & trustworthy people. Unfortunately, this is not true in many cases. Scientists are under pressure to create, deliver and invent, working very hard and hardly earning competitive salaries, compared to their fellow engineers for example.
These types of pressure and poor earnings can cause stress and dishonesty at work. They might be trying to alter data-when possible-to escape punishments, convince the boss or to increase their research budget.

In the meantime I don't understand why a CEO should not earn stocks of his own company. He/she is the CEO and is running the company, why he/she shouldn't benefit from the outcome of his hard work?

DD's picture
Wanted to bring your

Wanted to bring your attention to Bioethics and NIH at:

Jason King
Jason King's picture
There are two questions here.

There are two questions here. One asks whether scientists are honest or not - and this has a lot to do with how scientists' productivity is assessed ie. the short term readout of papers published and impact factors.

The other question is whether scientists should be allowed to buy/hold/sell biotech stocks. I aggree with San Diablo. You simply have to distinguish between two situations:

The first is where the scientist (Prof) has a very large share holding and is part of the company's executive or non-executive boards. He may well be the entrepreneur that set the company up. The SECC has very clear rules for the behaviour of such individuals, irrespective of whether they are B.Sc, M.As, MDs. The economy needs start ups and who else is going to have the specialist knowledge required for this?

The second situation, which I think was initially being referred to, is where a scientist holds a very small number of shares, either by directly buying the stock or holding them as part of a fund manager's portfolio. In this case there is almost no way these individuals can have real insider information about the company's strategy. Yes, they are more likely than any random guy on the street to understand the details of the company's products and potential markets, but this is not insider information.

What sort of sense would it make it we were only allowed to invest in stocks that we knew nothing about?