Friday, July 13, 2012

AAUP Chimes In: The Trend toward Tougher COI Regulations

The American Association of University Professors has announced the publication of a draft version of "AAUP Recommended Principles & Practices to Guide Academy-Industry Relationships," and asked for open comments:

At a total of some 300 pages, the AAUP managed to exceed the length of Freeh report on the scandal at Penn State. Disclaimer: what follows here is based on my review of the first 40 pages that give a quick summary of the recommendations and an overview of the general approach. Full disclosure: I am an AAUP member.

For those of you who aren't academics, AAUP is an organization that represents faculty interests in higher education and is, in some places, the teacher's union. The present document is an amalgam of guidelines issued by other national groups such as IOM and AAMC, along with new principles generated by AAUP. AAUP justifies a new report because many previous recommendations have been made only for portions of the university such as a medical center, and AAUP argues that the impact on the entire university community needs to be considered.

Some of the 56 recommendations are standard AAUP boilerplate about how faculty should have a say in uinversity covernance regarding industry relationships. But a lot of the report seems well worth our attention because it suggests that the trend these days is toward tougher approaches to conflicts of interest in academia.

For example, the AAUP is a staunch defender of academic freedom and therefore admits that some faculty have used this as an argument against any regulation of financial relationships with industry--that individual faculty members should be allowed to make their own choices about their relationships with drug companies, research and consulting, etc. The report replies, "Their arguments obscure the fact that academic freedom evolved as a concept not only to protect individual rights but to insulate the academy and safeguard the discovery process from powerful social forces, initially the church and later big business. Some rules are necessary to preserve freedom of research, teaching, and inquiry. At stake are the standards that govern universities, their reputations, and public trust.

"Academic freedom does not entitle faculty members to accept outside responsibilities that make it impossible to do their primary jobs. Academic freedom does not entitle faculty members to sign away their freedom to disseminate research results. Academic freedom does not entitle faculty members to ignore financial conflicts of interest that could dangerously compromise the informed-consent process and the impartiality of research."
In sum-- stringent regulations against COI in industry relationships protect the core values of academic freedom.
On one issue that I have been harping on for many years, the report is similarly uncompromising. It accepts as a guiding principle that the mere disclosure and "management" of COI is seldom the right way to proceed, and that as a rule, eliminating and avoiding COI is much better--while formal plans for managing COI should be adopted for the minority of cases where it is indeed unavoidable without serious harm to vital public interests.
The AAUP also implicitly rejects the argument that since all faculty are biased in one way or another, "intellectual COI" is ubiquitous and therefore special regs to limit financial COI are unneeded:
In short, this draft report considers some key arguments against tougher COI regulations, rejects them, and proceeds to recommend a fairly uncompromising set of guidelines. The way AAUP operates, this report can never become a standard uniform set of regulations for all universities; rather the hope is that individual universities will turn to this report for general guidance as to their policies and then craft policies that take local needs and issues into account--in some cases, the report admits, perhaps adopting more lenient standards.
"Of course, faculty investigators also have biases—whether they arise from scholarly debates, personal affinities, or political and religious commitments. Faculty status does not confer independence from the activities and interests of the communities in which faculty members live and work. The heart of the matter, however, is that faculty not be contractually obligated to represent positions at odds with their professional judgment and public commitments, or placed in compromised situations, financial and otherwise, that are more likely to produce bias."

The AAUP is very clear that public trust in the academy and its research is at stake, for example:
"When corporations, or nominally nonprofit funding agencies, effectively bribe faculty members to, for example, publish articles with doubtful product claims, dubious economic assessments, or attacks on well-established science, the faculty betray their professional and public responsibilities."


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mary said...

Addressing COI on an individual basis depends heavily on personal integrity. A commodity that is, sadly, seriously lacking in todays society