Service Commitments, Faculty Commitments and NIH/FBI Focus on Foreign Relationships
Creation and dissemination of impactful research depend on a shared commitment from the entire research community, including faculty and staff. Toward that end, this memo covers three topics:
- Service commitments from Office of Research
- Faculty commitments to managing conflicts of interest and commitment, including research relationships
- Focus on foreign relationships from the NIH and FBI, particularly directed at “shadow laboratories” in China.
Office of Research Service Commitments: Employees of the Office of Research are committed to supporting ethical and impactful research at USC. Toward that end, all office of research units have established and posted service commitments, and all employees (excepting one person in the IRB) have signed acknowledgments that they have read and understand these commitments. These represent our collective commitment to serve the research community, including all those affected by our research.
Faculty Commitments: Faculty, likewise, have committed to uphold standards for the conduct of research, while allowing outside activities when appropriate and approved. As stated in the Faculty Handbook:
“The University of Southern California encourages faculty involvement in outside consulting, research, and professional activities, as well as community service. However, since the primary responsibility of a full‑time faculty member is to the University, limits on outside activities must be set.”
Faculty Conflicts: While certain conflicted relationships are permitted when disclosed, approved and managed, not all are permissible. For instance, faculty are never permitted to engage in promotional speaking for the sponsor of his/her clinical trial. Failure to follow disclosure and conflict management standards harms the reputation of the institution as well as the individual, as was recently demonstrated in the New York Times coverage of Memorial Sloan Kettering.
With these points in mind, please be aware that the NIH, the FBI and other federal agencies have begun tracking conflicts of commitment and conflicts of interest that are undisclosed, as well as disclosed interests that are impermissible, under federal policy or law. NIH is in particular concerned that faculty have established foreign laboratories that conflict with their commitments. Please be reminded:
1) Investigators, other employees and paid students supported by federal R&D grants/contracts must complete the assignment of intellectual property (IP) to the university. The federal government, and USC, are concerned with the potential for IP theft. Those affected have received invitations to complete a one-time assignment process, which is required prior to new federal awards. Please do so promptly if you haven’t already.
2) Faculty are not permitted to conduct research at other institutions without exceptional approval. USC policy states:
“6.2.3 Participation as a principal investigator, co-principal investigator, co-investigator, paid consultant or paid staff member on sponsored projects at another entity (as distinct from research collaborations with other entities via a subcontract or subaward to USC) must be disclosed to the appropriate dean and the Vice President for Research and are prohibited unless specially approved by the dean and the Vice President for Research.”
Please be particularly mindful that this policy applies to relationships at both domestic institutions and foreign institutions (e.g., China).
3) Disclosure of Outside Personal Relations: Example relationships requiring disclosure and approval include: consulting payments or ownership interests that benefit from your research; any consulting by clinicians to the pharmaceutical industry (whether or not research is involved). Please remember that a relationship cannot begin until approved. diSClose is the single portal for disclosing all outside interests at USC.
What to Do? It is critical that external relationships for which you are personally paid (outside of USC compensation) and entail research of any kind are promptly disclosed, if they haven’t already. Such relationships may be approved as an exception, depending on the circumstances, if they do not conflict with your obligations to USC or obligations to your research sponsors, are permitted under the law, and do not lower the quality and integrity of the research that is produced.
Monitoring: USC monitors policy compliance by cross-checking disclosures against Open Payments data and other public sources. Failure to file a required disclosure, initiating an activity without approval, and failure to comply with an approved management plan, are subject to USC’s disciplinary processes. Failure to comply with federal regulations can lead to additional consequences imposed by sponsors or other authorities.
Randolph W. Hall, Ph.D.
Vice President, Research
Professor, Epstein Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering
University of Southern California