Academic Consulting and Non-Disclosure Agreements

Thanks to Pepsigeddon, conflict of interest-related posts seem to be bouncing around the intertubes. Which brings us to this article by Marc Lipsitch* about another type of potential conflict of interest–gag agreements for faculty who receive industry support (and which are typically allowed by most universities):

Recently, however, I received a request from a large pharmaceutical company to assist in the design of a clinical trial, and the proposed terms seemed to require that I sign away my right to criticize the product. One provision would prohibit me from entering into “any agreement or relationship to render services as … adviser or consultant to, any other individual, firm, or corporation that would be inimical to or in conflict with” the aspects of the company’s business covered by the agreement. Another would forbid me to engage, in any capacity, directly or indirectly, in “any business,” with or without compensation, relating to the class of products under discussion–not just for the term of the contract, but for the year after as well. Those provisions could restrain me from providing candid advice to a regulator, a government official, or the editor of a peer-reviewed journal about the class of products on which I was consulting, even if the advice were based on publicly available information. I objected to those terms, as did a colleague who was offered the same arrangement.

Lipsitch explains what is corrosive about these agreements (italics mine):

A university’s refusal to review such agreements because they are private transactions between a company and a private individual seems to miss the point. To function effectively and maintain credibility in his or her primary role as a university employee–as a researcher, teacher, and possibly clinician–the faculty member must preserve the freedom to speak about matters of science and policy without obligation to commercial interests.

One suggestion for curbing this is the requirement that researchers applying for federal grant money must disclose if they have any of these gag contracts. After all, if there are things they can’t disclose which are relevant to the findings of their work, then the money would be better spent on someone who can disclose this information.
The other phenomenon here is the lack of recognition that you can’t have it all. Sometimes you have to make choices, and those choices confer benefits and costs. If you want a job where your ideas and contributions are taken seriously because you don’t have a hidden agenda (good work if you can get it), then there are certain things you can’t do.
*Disclosure: I have know Marc Lipsitch for many years and am currently collaborating with him. Clearly, I am a shill for Big Streptococcus. Or something.

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1 Response to Academic Consulting and Non-Disclosure Agreements

  1. Jim Thomerson says:

    At my university, faculty contracts specified that we could do professional outside work one day a week so long as it did not interfere with university assignments. We had to fill out a form asking for university approval of outside work, and, when finished, report how much work had been done.
    A colleague at another university accepted a non-disclosure contract to survey a swamp for a proposed landfill. His preliminary report listed nesting of several endangered bird species. The company paid him the full amount, said thank you, good-by, and remember the non-disclosure agreement. So I knew about that pitfall.
    When I worked for the US Army Corps of Engineers, there was a clause which said that 30 days after the draft report was accepted, we could use our data for academic purposes, which we did.

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