Examples in Consulting

A "conflict of interest" in a university setting generally refers to situations in which the external interests of a university employee have the potential to influence their decisions in their university role. The influence is generally in ways that could lead to personal gain (financial or non-financial) for the individual or immediate family members.

A "conflict of commitment" in a university setting generally refers to situations in which the external activity of a university employee has the potential to reduce the time and attention the employee can devote to their university responsibilities, and thus negatively impact their performance or assigned university duties.

Conflicts of interest and commitment can occur any time an ISU employee engages in consulting, whether paid or unpaid, with an external entity.

These examples are intended to give an idea of the range of situations that might occur. They are not inclusive of all possible situations that could be or could be perceived to be conflicts of interest and commitment.

Situation: An ISU employee, on their own time, consults for a company that develops and sells products related to the employee's research. Because of the employee's expertise, the company decides to give the employee a grant to conduct research of interest to the company.

Why could this be perceived to be a conflict of interest? Accepting sponsored funding from a company for which one also consults, whether paid or unpaid, is considered a conflict of interest because of the perception that the desire to maintain the consulting relationship may prejudice the outcome of the research.

What should the employee do? To protect research integrity, ISU policy prohibits investigators from receiving grants from entities for which they consult. Therefore, the employee should disclose the situation via IRBManager, where it will be reviewed by the Office of the Vice President for Research. A management plan likely will be needed that either 1) transfers the grant to a third party to provide oversight or 2) establishes an oversight committee to monitor the integrity of the research.

Situation: An ISU employee consults for an external entity from their university office during their normal working hours. They use their university computer, phone and e-mail account.

Why could this be perceived to be a conflict of interest and commitment? Limited consulting during normal working hours can be acceptable, as long as it is approved by the employee's supervisor. However, Iowa code prohibits state employees from using state resources for personal financial gain. This includes university time, offices, computers, phones and e-mail accounts. The use of university time for outside activities is a specific form of conflict of interest often called "conflict of commitment."

What should the employee do? The employee should disclose the consulting activity via IRBManager and discuss the situation with their department/unit chair or director. A simple management plan may be needed to protect against inappropriate use, or the appearance of inappropriate use, of university time or other state resources.

Situation: An ISU employee signs a consulting contract with a company that does research in an area closely related to that of the employee. Unfortunately, the employee fails to read the contract carefully before signing.

Why could this be perceived to be a conflict of interest? Consulting contracts often specify that whatever the consultant tells the company belongs to the company. Thus, a researcher who shares valuable intellectual property with the company could inadvertently lose the rights to their own information and/or the right to continue the research along the lines they had intended.

What should the employee do? If asked to sign a consulting contract, the employee should read it carefully before signing. If they accept the terms that give ownership of information provided by the employee to the company, the employee should be cautious about what information they provide.