broke if they don't

Code of practice aims to help UK universities avoid conflicts of interest over funding.

By | November 11, 2002

LONDON — A report launched at the House of Commons today seeks to help UK universities avoid ethical blunders when they accept commercial cash.

Governments are putting ever more pressure on universities to seek commercial funding for research. But if the funds come in reasonably sized lumps, they seldom arrive in the form of a blank check. The donor normally wants something in return, either in terms of good publicity, or privileged access to any results. There is the clear potential for conflicts of interest, and for universities losing their intellectual independence.

Launching his report today, Rory Daly stepped into the debate. He compiled "The Missenden Code of Practice for Ethics and Accountability," while working on a Masters degree in the School of Independent Studies at Lancaster University. Daly recommends that universities establish ethics committees charged with ensuring that all cash is clean, and that any conditions made by donors are laid out in the open for employees and any other interested party to scrutinize.

"I was pleased that the academics and members of funding councils who attended the launch felt that the recommendations were sensible and could be implemented immediately," he told The Scientist.

Lending the report weight by sponsoring the launch was Labour MP Ian Gibson. As chair of the Select Committee on Science and Technology he wants to use the code to encourage the government to take seriously the issue of university funding. "The relationship between universities and industries can only be mutually beneficial, if universities' independence, the freedom of academic research, is protected," he said.

The Association of University Teachers also welcomed the report. "With the increased use of private sector investment it's vital that clear guidelines are established. Protecting academic freedom is paramount," said AUT general secretary Sally Hunt.

The head of the Missenden Centre, John Wakeford, told The Scientist that although some of the ideas in the code have been around for some time, they had been forgotten. This was confirmed by Cambridge historian Gill Evans, who said she had spoken to six prominent scientists at the university who were unsure whether Cambridge has a code. The University does, indeed, have a code but Evans suspects no one uses it.

Speaking at the launch, Wakeford gave an example of how conflict of interest can influence a situation, telling of a student who published a critical article on organo-phosphate pesticides in the sheep industry. "Not only did she get a threatening solicitor's letter on behalf of the companies concerned, but she couldn't get any independent academics to look into her research, because all the pesticide experts either are funded, or hope to be funded, by the companies that produce the pesticides," he said.

A spokesperson for Universities UK told The Scientist that it was joining forces with the Association of Medical Research Charities to set up a working group to update their code of ethics. The code was initially set up to regulate funding from the tobacco industry, but clearly needs to have a wider remit. "We note with interest the findings of the Missenden Centre report and will consider its recommendations," she said.

"It is a question of how to push universities into taking the issue more seriously. No one appreciates safety procedures until there is an emergency," said Wakeford.

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