Conflicts of Interest in a Burgeoning Science Field

Primary Research: Researcher Views About Funding Sources and Conflicts of Interest in Nanotechnology 

by Professor Katherine A. McComas

(Full text)

Key Takeaways:Picture7

  • The results show clearly there is industry concern about the potential of conflict of interests (or COIs) to affect research and development.
  • Although, there exists significant differences between attitudes on COIs depending on funding support. Generally there was concern about COIs across the board.
  • Industry workers seemed most at risk of COIs, with having less advice and holding they believed was trade secrets while being the least satisfied about COI procedures.
  • Funded academics were more satisfied with COI procedures and less critical. However those without funding were the exact opposite, possibly indicating a causal relation.
  • -Acceptability results show the field generally supports taking money from any source, as long as the process is good and the results are reported fairly and accurately.


Nanotechnology, like all fields, is heavily dependent on grants and funding money to further their research and knowledge of the discipline. But the sources of funding are of concern. Nanotechnology was supposed to be the next big breakthrough in science, but progress has been relatively mild. Positive, but mild. Does this make the nanotechnology field more vulnerable to influence and being swayed or hype? Does money from a company with a vested interest always invalidate the findings? Is government funding regarded as purer than industry?

COIs arise in any field, and can be more than financial. But nanotechnology is a relatively new field that, like all fields, requires funding to keep it churning. Is a new field less vulnerable more in a sense, pure, in terms of managing conflict of interests? Or is its neotenous nature make it more frail, and more willing to take dubious money?

An online survey tried to measure conflict of interest in the field of nanotechnology. For the purposes of the study, a conflict of interest (or COI) arises when one has stake in the outcome of the research while also has the means to influence it. So these COIs often go hand in with the normal actions of finding money for your research. Is this a problem? Or does this worry nanotechnologists?

Over 67% of the US research money in the field of nanotechnology comes in the form of industry dollars. This has lead to concerns from both inside and outside the field over whether this poses a problem. These COIs have led to more concrete concerns in the industry. Are there pressures to keep results secret? How about to pressure to more development and less discovery based research (which may not be in the best interest of furthering the field)? And could this led to researchers downplaying or smoothing over risks associated with their findings?

As is necessary for any social issue, it must be distilled down to a few questions that scientifically evaluate a few inputs on the way to ascertaining beliefs in the industry about research funding. These boil down to: how do nanotechnology researchers believe funding sources is influencing current research, to what extent is there cause for concern about COIs, and do significant differences in these views exist among academics with industry funding and those without?

The study itself was conducted via an online survey distributed by the National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network, or NNIN. Using the access to nanotechnology workers and labs provided by the NNIN, the Cornell University survey was emailed to workers. Of a total of 662 possible, 240 responded.

Of the 240 that filled out the survey, 40 were removed since they did not say where they currently worked – whether it be in industry, academia, or other. The final tally was 193, after a few other whittlings. This was done so the respondents looked at could be identified and filtered in terms of industry and academic respondents, and the differences between them.

Nanotechnologists were grouped into those with no funding, those with industry funding, those with academic funding, government funding, and both government and industry founding. There were a few big similarities between the groups. Everyone felt it was best to report all COIs and that COIs could be a cause for concern. Although those satisfied with COI procedures were less likely to be concerned with their influence. Those in the industry and those with no funding were on the whole less satisfied in the COI procedures in place, but these trends were not group differences.

There were significant differences between the groups, however. Industry workers were twice as likely to _not_ have received advice on managing COIs in comparison to academics. Those in industry were also much more likely to have equity in their funding source, feel their research was property of their funding course, and hold what they believed were “trade secrets.” These were also the most unsatisfied with the procedures protecting those with COIs. This certainly paints a portrayal of a worried and cynical industrial nanotechnological work force, but is it the result of being skeptical or being aware? And the lack of advice is worrying and maybe indicative of a knowledge gap.

Funded academics were less critical of the influences on the field and more satisfied with the way COIs were being managed. From this is it seems they’re the most unaware and happiest members of the study. Those academics without funding were the total opposites, unsurprisingly. They were less satisfied and more worried about the influence of funding dollars. So it raises the question this discontent was based on personal experiences or not, the same experiences that led to this lack of funding.

Among funded academics there was further derision. Those with just government funding (compared to those with government and industry) were more concerned about the influence of their funding sources and also how their research would be perceived. Why this divide exists is was a mystery to the researchers. Its most likely, however, just an issue of perception.

Another consideration was asking researchers about how acceptable some scenarios were. The most acceptable scenarios were taking government or industry funds, while the least acceptable all involved downplaying risks or over exaggerating results. It seems the researchers were saying it doesn’t matter as much where the money is coming from as long as the process is good and the results are fairly reported. This seems to be the price of doing business. Take the industry’s pot of money and use if for your research, just don’t let it corrupt the research itself.

But maybe the concern is unwarranted? One response seems to indicate well, maybe this isn’t so bad. “Yes, there has been a swing to more applied research lately, but this is not much more than the usual pendulum swing in scientific emphasis.” Another writes, “It is worth remembering that the art of Venice would not be there without the Medici family. We really need to build these partnerships and realize that the wall between ‘basic’ and ‘applied’ is artificial.” Although its certainly true applied and basic and arbitrary and both contribute to current knowledge, these quotes seem to downplay concerns. The concerns are there, and they could be valid.

Is it skepticism or awareness, these answers hint at? Maybe the best way to think about COI concern is just that – concern. Much like fretting about a loose staircase step, nothing really bad has happened about the potential is certainly there.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *