Conflict of Interest Scenarios - Issues Involving Students and Trainees

Dr. Black and Dr. White, researchers in two different areas at Stanford, had a novel idea leading to a successful patent application. They started a company in order to pursue developing and marketing this technology commercially. Both serve on the Scientific Advisory Board of the company. Dr. Black has a graduate student working with him who wants to conduct research at the company facilities. Dr. White has entered into a contract with the company to fund research in her lab, and also has federal funding for her research as well. In addition, Dr. White has two post-docs working in her lab. What are the special concerns Stanford needs to address concerning the students and trainees in this case?

All researchers at Stanford, including graduate students and postdoctoral scholars, must be free to choose their research projects and to talk about and publish the results of their research. It is essential that an investigator's financial interests not interfere with the student's academic freedom and their progress toward their academic goals. The potential conflicts in this scenario raise these risks, and the investigator's position as advisor/mentor/supervisor increase the student/trainee's vulnerability.

Dr. Black's case

Dr. Black's graduate student is eager to pursue his research interests at the company. The company, however, wants to protect its proprietary information and expects that the student's work will belong solely to them. While such a relationship might be of value to the student, it creates serious issues of openness and freedom to publish, particularly if the student's work at the company is part of his dissertation research. It will be necessary in this case to distinguish between academic and corporate work, and to clarify ownership and publishability of results. A faculty advisor who has no relationship to the company might be appointed to oversee this aspect of the student's research, or an oversight committee of faculty with no financial relationship with that company, might be appointed to ensure that the student's interests are not compromised.

Students, as well as faculty and staff, must disclose to the University any potentially patentable inventions involving more than incidental use of University resources. Students must be free to publicly discuss and disseminate research results. Although in some cases slight accommodations might be allowed for the company's secrecy or proprietary interests, such as granting the company a 90-day review period prior to publication in order to review for intellectual property interests, students must be free to discuss their work publicly and to publish.

Dr. White's case

The postdocs in Dr. White's lab are not involved with the investigator's company, but the same values apply to the work being done. Researchers must be free to choose their own avenues of research and must not be directed or encouraged by the investigator to pursue a project solely because of its value to the company.

This issue is especially important to address since Dr. White's lab is supported by both federal sponsors as well as the company which he helped to start. To accept the corporate funding, Dr. White's interests in the company had to be disclosed, and a determination made that the work being done was basic, public domain science. Stanford must assure that the work being done in Dr. White's lab is not being pipelined into any company, most especially not to a company in which Dr. White has a financial interest. Those working in the lab must be free to publicly discuss and disseminate their research results.

Since Dr. White's lab is supported by both federal and corporate funding, it's important to understand how intellectual property coming from the work done in the lab will be handled. Any discoveries or inventions arising from the work done in this lab, regardless of the source of its funding, must be disclosed and assigned to Stanford. Stanford's Office of Technology Licensing (OTL) will determine, in consultation with the inventor(s), whether to file for a patent and will then market the technology to the private sector. In the case of the company-funded work, there may be an agreement that the company gets a "right of first refusal" before the technology is offered to others.

Because the work is so specialized, it may be that the only company interested in the intellectual property is the company founded by the investigators. That company may be the best qualified to develop the technology, and thus would be a likely licensing candidate. Stanford must take care however to avoid the perception that work done in Dr. White's lab will "belong" to Dr. White's company. Researchers in the lab should understand the source of funds for the work they are doing, and should also understand that the result of that work will be reported and shared openly.

In a lab like Dr. White's, Stanford would want to take special steps to assure that researchers are free to talk about and publish their work, any discoveries or inventions were disclosed to OTL in a timely manner, research results or discoveries were not being pipelined to the company, and that any risks to the objectivity of the research were managed. The postdocs in the lab should know that their work is being done at and for Stanford University - not the professor's company. In a case like this, Stanford could appoint an oversight committee to monitor this research to ensure that the conflict of interest did not affect important academic values.

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