Today at Berkeley Lab

Got Influence? Why You Might Need to Recuse Yourself from that Lab Business Decision

This is Part Three in a three-part Conflict of Interest series intended to help Berkeley Lab employees understand their responsibilities with regards to outside employment, commercializing Lab technology, and Lab business decisions they may influence (or appear to influence) as a Lab official.

Scenario 1: A Lab division director who owns significant stock in Toyota declines to participate in reviewing and approving a Toyota proposal for a research project in her division.

Scenario 2: A Lab researcher learns that his division is looking for a leadership coach and sends his wife’s resume to division administration to consider for the subcontract.

These two scenarios are hypothetical, but they both illustrate a point— Berkeley Lab employees often are in a position to influence financial or purchasing decisions for the Lab for which they have a financial interest.

It’s important to note that the rules apply to actual conflicts of interest, and also to circumstances that are perhaps legally permissible but that could create the appearance of impropriety, says Lab Chief Counsel Jeff Blair.

“Part of the responsibility of working at a world-class national research facility is to be conscious of and thoughtful about our critical stewardship responsibilities entrusted to us by the public,” Blair says. “These include avoiding actual or potential conflicts of interest. But it also includes vigilance to ensure each of us takes steps to protect the Lab’s reputation for honesty and fairness that the public expects from us.”

In the case of the division director, she made the right choice by recusing herself from a Lab business decision regarding a company for which she had a vested financial interest. Even if her stock ownership in Toyota was so small she did not have a material financial interest, she should nevertheless consider recusing herself to assure the public (or a competing auto manufacturer) that the Lab is impartial and not subject to financial influence or pressure, Blair says.

In the case of the researcher, he should have recused himself from, essentially, nominating a family member for a subcontract.  If it might be viewed as improper to members of the work group, or to others who might compete for a writing contract with the Lab, the researcher should simply not participate in the spouse’s application at all.

  • Berkeley Lab employees are governed by DOE and UC policy, as well as state law, all of which exclude them from making or participating in decisions relating to award, negotiation, or administration of a subcontract if the employee has a financial interest in the decision. Having a financial interest in a decision creates a conflict of interest.
  • A financial interest is any relationship of an economic nature, including serving in positions such as director, officer, partner, founder, consultant, or manager of an entity (whether paid or unpaid); scientific advisory board or technical advisory board membership; salaries; consulting income; stock or stock options (vested or not vested); honoraria; gifts; loans; and travel payments.

More details on financial conflict of interest can be found on the Research and Institutional Integrity Office website.

For questions about conflict of interest issues, please contact Molly Stoufer.

Want help navigating the conflict of interest/recusal process? This site takes you through the decision process.

Go here to read part one in the series on ‘Why You Need to Have Your Outside Consulting Gig Reviewed”

Go here to read part two in the series on “Taking Lab Tech to Market? Commercialization Arrangements Need Review”