Conflict of interest. The phrase has an ominous tone. “Conflict” suggests something is wrong. “Interest” gives the impression of privacy, secrecy, something is hush-hush. “Conflict of interest” tells us someone has an “in.” Even the words “inside information” bear the mark of privileged knowledge. Someone somewhere has something no one else has. Most of us think “conflict of interest” is wrong: unless it’s our interest and someone else’s conflict.
What happens if conflict of interest has implications for public health? What if medical research on new drugs is done by doctors who receive grants from the medical companies they are researching? Shouldn’t that send up a red flag? Daniel Levinson, the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services, has said that 90 percent of university research relies on the researchers themselves to determine any conflict of interest in their own research. Doesn’t this raise concerns? So, should faculty members from major universities get to decide if the money they receive from drug or device makers is relevant to their government-financed research? The only possible response to this revelation is, “Well, duh!!”
A cloud of suspicion casts a shadow over academic research at major universities. According to the National Institutes of Health, universities manage conflicts of interest based on an honor system. Sally Rockey, who oversees research at the National Institutes of Health, says there are too many violations with little oversight. Eric Campbell from Harvard Medical School says that universities have no interest in limiting their star researchers for fear they will leave for other universities with fewer restrictions. In classic children’s stories, researcher-conflict-of-interest would be viewed as the wolf guarding the hen house.
Conflict of interest does not come out of thin air. Our interest or “bias” is what matters to us personally. It should be clear to anyone listening to these words that we are all biased. We have points of view that are established deep within our thinking. No one is saying that having a bias or an interest is wrong. To have a point of view is to have a bias. In the case of research, the dilemma is not that people have a bias, an interest, or begin with an assumption. The problem occurs, however, when there is no oversight of individuals by independent researchers. And the predicament looms larger when it appears one person’s bias gets them favors over others.
We all know that people in general “play favorites” and that some research is skewed to one point of view. So what should we do? I suggest a few rules. Ask questions. Define terms. Check other sources. Follow the money. For researchers: be accountable to outside researchers. For journalists: be careful what you publish. Poor research may be misapplied or misappropriated. If research can be used to help people we know it can also be used to hurt people. But there is one rule we should all follow. If I see conflict of interest in others, I know that my interest may cause a conflict for others. For Prime Time America, this is Dr. Mark Eckel, personally seeking truth wherever it’s found.
Follow the Money. Moody Radio Commentary. February, 2010.
Dr. Mark Eckel, Professor of Old Testament, Crossroads Bible College