U draws fire over plan to regulate business ties

  • Article by: JANET MOORE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 24, 2009 - 6:47 PM

Critics say a policy aimed at ending conflicts of interest is too restrictive and confusing.

A proposed conflict-of-interest policy aimed at eliminating inappropriate financial relationships between faculty and staff at the University of Minnesota and business has drawn heated debate from all corners of the U.

Recently, two nationally known bioethicists in the university's Center for Bioethics, Steve Miles and Carl Elliott, went public with their concerns. The draft "is an incomplete and flawed document that will do little to regulate the kinds of misconduct and concerns that have brought this university and many other United States universities before congressional inquiries and harsh media scrutiny," Miles wrote.

But others say the policy is too restrictive. They argue that the U needs to encourage healthy relationships with business, not discourage collaboration with overly burdensome rules. A few say they are just plain confused by the policy's language and they want clarification, according to the university's general counsel, Mark Rotenberg.

He said hundreds of comments have poured in from faculty and staff in the past month, after the new draft was posted on the Internet. "The way of the U is to engage in wide consultation," he said.

The draft -- which likely will change after the comment period -- places new restrictions on reporting financial relationships between faculty and staff and business interests. It also bans gifts, ghostwritten research papers and product endorsements. A final draft is expected in a few months. Because the draft is an administrative policy, it will not need the Board of Regents' approval.

The proposed policy, which grew out of a draft crafted for the U's Medical School last year, comes at a time when some of the nation's leading academic institutions have wrestled with scandals after top researchers and faculty members were found to have questionable financial ties to industry.

The U is not alone in considering a new policy -- at least 35 universities and colleges nationwide, particularly medical schools, are crafting new rules to guide these relationships, according to the American Medical Student Association.

Critics question impact

Elliott, a professor in the U's Center for Bioethics, wrote, "The biggest problem with this document is that it will do little if anything to fix the conflict-of-interest problems which have embarrassed the university." For example, he questioned why no cap was placed on the amount of money faculty and staff can receive from industry. Further, he said, the policy does not address conflict of interest related to continuing medical education -- doctor training that often is paid for by drug and medical device companies.

The current draft calls for an automatic review once an individual's compensation from industry tops $100,000. But Miles said income from each business entity should be reported. The current draft makes it possible for businesses "to slice its compensation to faculty in small pieces that understate the conflict of interest."

He also pointed out that the ban on gifts and entertainment fails to include free drug samples distributed by pharmaceutical companies. There is increasing recognition nationally that these samples are a marketing tool that promotes more rapid introduction of costly drugs, he said.

Several faculty members contacted by the Star Tribune declined to comment publicly on the policy.

Arthur Erdman, an engineering professor and director of the U's Medical Devices Center, said, "It's good that we're putting this together. We're on the leading edge of addressing these issues. I've heard a lot of reaction and feedback, but what will come out the other end will be good for the university and good for people who interact with the university."

Janet Moore • 612-673-7752

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