Today at Berkeley Lab

Lab Committee Helps Scientists Avoid Conflicts of Interest in Research

By Theresa Duque

conflict-committee

Every month, members of the Conflict of Interest Advisory Committee get together to carry out a special task: to determine whether a researcher’s work outside the Lab is a conflict of interest, and how it might be mitigated.

In 2009, Meredith Montgomery, the then-Research and Institutional Integrity Officer and currently the Director of Institutional Assurance and Integrity, formed the committee in response to a growing number of ad hoc reviews of potential conflicts of interest in research and financial integrity at the Lab. “I realized that the Laboratory would benefit from an institutional review of potential conflicts of interest, so I proposed a standing committee that would have broad representation across program areas, and over time, would develop expertise in applying institutional conflict-of-interest principles to individual cases,” says Montgomery.

Voting members, who are all Laboratory scientists appointed to the committee by Laboratory Director Paul Alivisatos, make recommendations to Laboratory Deputy Director Horst Simon, the Lab’s deciding official for conflict of interest. “The scientists on the committee have a deep knowledge of their field, and a long experience in conducting research. This is important background to have when debating factors such as the required level of effort, and the relationship between outside projects and work at the Lab. I rely heavily on the committee’s recommendations and thank them for their diligent work,” says Simon.

In addition to voting members, the committee includes ex officio members Jeff Blair, Chief Laboratory Counsel; Elsie Quaite-Randall, Chief Technology Transfer Officer; and Michelle Chew Wong, Patent Attorney. Molly Stoufer, Conflict of Interest Coordinator, administers the committee with assistance from David Stein of the Office of Institutional Assurance and Integrity.
Some committee members find the challenging yet collegial nature of the monthly meetings so rewarding that they have served since the committee first formed six years ago. “These discussions are important in helping Lab employees attain their professional goals while upholding high ethical standards,” says committee chair and founding member Victor Markowitz, a senior computer scientist from the Computational Research Division.

Others see the committee as an opportunity to learn something new. “It’s a great experience to see what is involved in starting up an outside business properly,” says Peter Zwart, a staff scientist who represents the Physical Biosciences Division. “Sometimes I’ll go into a meeting thinking one way. The good thing is that none of us are afraid to disagree with each other. People come in with a mixed bag of perspectives, and in the end, a resolution gets rolled out that you might not have expected,” he says.

For more information about the Lab’s conflict-of-interest policies, see the Requirements and Policies Manual.