The University of Minnesota's long push to revamp its conflict of interest policy got little notice outside academic circles -- until last July. That's when Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley dropped a bombshell in a lengthy letter to U President Robert Bruininks.
Faculty member and surgeon Dr. David Polly had one seriously sweet consulting deal with local device manufacturer Medtronic -- one that paid him about $1.2 million between 2003 and 2007. Grassley demanded to know how the U was policing Polly's lucrative tie to industry. The unsettling reality was that U officials had no idea how much Polly's total compensation package came to, at least not until they read it in Grassley's much-publicized missive.
It was an unacceptable situation -- something that top university officials acknowledged last summer in a meeting with the Star Tribune Editorial Board and pledged to correct with a tough, new conflict of interest policy in the works. This month, the U released a draft of the proposed policy, and it's a dramatic improvement. Over the next few months, as faculty weigh in and revisions are made, officials should be bolder in several key areas of the draft to strengthen it further.
One of the most praiseworthy aspects of the policy is that it would be applied "wall to wall,'' meaning faculty across the university would be covered, not just those in the medical school as previous plans had called for. Collaborations between researchers and industry are increasingly common. There shouldn't be one set of standards for medical professors and another for those who teach law or information technology. If approved, the U would not be the first institution to have universitywide coverage, but it would be among just a handful with such a comprehensive policy.
Another key measure would deal with high-caliber consulting gigs like Polly's. The new plan would have required the surgeon to disclose internally his financial ties with the company in far greater detail. It also would put teeth into enforcement when conflicts are found and action is taken. "For the first time, our management plan ... will be mandatory and enforceable by the dean of the unit. It will not be advisory to the unit,'' said U General Counsel Mark Rotenberg.
The new policy, however, doesn't go far enough in querying professors about outside income. The old policy simply had them check off if they earned $10,000 or more. Under the new plan they would have to check off annual income categories, such as $50,000 to $100,000; its highest category is $250,000 or more. Why not simply disclose the actual amount? Rotenberg has an unsatisfactory answer: This is the disclosure approach other public entities use. The U should seize the opportunity to set an aggressive standard. Legislators also need to do their part. A misguided state law that prevents the U from publicly disclosing outside income should be changed. The public deserves to know more about the ties between state experts and industry.
The proposal's language governing industry-funded continuing education also needs sharpening in the months ahead. And the U should make another small but significant change and delete language that allows for consideration of a professor's "unique value" when weighing a potential conflict of interest. Some critics contend it means faculty stars will get special treatment, and it could give opponents ammunition to hold up the proposal.
That would be unfortunate. The university's medical school has been under fire for not putting an aggressive conflict management plan in place sooner. The U now has a strong, far more comprehensive policy almost ready to go. It's time to put the finishing touches on the plan and make it happen.