Conflict of Interest is a legal term that encompasses a wide spectrum of behaviors or actions involving personal gain or financial interest (Macrina, 1995). Both individuals and organizations can have conflicts of interest when conducting research. When research is conducted collaboratively and the number of relationships increase so does the potential for conflicts of interest.
Because many universities are offered equity interest in business ventures, conflicts of interest may occur. For example, in 1996, 2,095 patents were issued to universities (up 14% from 1995), 248 start-up companies were formed (up 11% from 1995), and licensing income reached $591.7 million (up 19.6%) (Massing, 1996).
At many universities, an institution takes equity in start-up companies based upon the intellectual property of one of its own faculty. Research universities may offer released time for the faculty member, technical support for the project, and access to instrumentation and equipment in return for majority ownership in the company. Advocates of equity ownership by institutions emphasize that this is an inexpensive investment with the potential for substantial economic return (Macrina, 1996). Critics of equity ownership by institutions point out that institutional resources are diverted to the personal benefit of researchers and the investors in the venture capital deal (Blumenstyk, 1998). They also point to a significant increase in public scrutiny, legal challenges from other members of the institution, and restrictive regulation from federal funding agencies (Morgan, 1990).
Potential conflicts of interest may also exist in cases involving individual researchers. An example of this may be when a researcher who has a grant from a pharmaceutical company to conduct drug trials also has an individual consulting agreement with the same company. In Scientific Integrity (2000), Francis Macrina demonstrates the complex nature of the concept of conflict of interest. The following cases illustrate some of the ramifications involved. All cases and discussion are taken from Chapter 8: Collaborative Research (p.p. 157-170).