Academic and Researcher Conflicts of Interest and Commitment

Research & Innovation Office
University of Colorado Boulder


UCB COIC Policy Revised August 1, 2019 [printable version]

A. Purpose

The university encourages scholarship and research that leads to commercial and consulting activities; however, such activities have the potential to lead to conflicts of interest, which may have adverse effects for employees and the University. Therefore, education, disclosure, review and management processes pertaining to academic/researcher conflicts of interest and commitment are governed by this Boulder campus policy, and are related to the following Regent policies (number and letter), administrative policies (APS), campus policies/procedures, and federal regulations (two examples).

Conflict of Interest Disclosure and Management

  • Policy Title: Conflicts of Interest and Commitment in Research and Teaching; APS Number 5012
  • Policy Title: Disclosure of Interests (for Officers); APS Number 4013.
  • Policy Title: Conflicts of Interest-University Staff; Policy 3B.

Outside Consulting

Roles/Responsibilities/Expectations/Standards

Federal Regulations

B. Background

What is a conflict of interest or Commitment (COIC)? 

According to University Administrative Policy (APS), a conflict of interest exists "when an employee's financial or personal considerations may compromise, or have the appearance of compromising, an employee's personal judgment in exercising any university responsibility in instructions, research, administration, management, and other professional activities." Ethical behavior toward students and scientific integrity in the conduct and reporting of research are of paramount concern. Potential conflicts of interest are important because they may appear to compromise objectivity in research, fulfillment of university duties, and/or proper fiscal management.

In order to determine if a conflict of interest exists, the University has developed a disclosure process. The disclosure process is designed to determine if;

  1. A discloser has a significant financial or personal interest in an outside commercial entity that is related to the discloser’s University activities;
  2. If this interest could compromise (or appear to compromise) the discloser’s judgment in his/her university duties, research, or decision making.

Completing the disclosure and review process does not mean one has a conflict of interest. In fact, most disclosures will reveal no conflicts. Furthermore, most conflicts of interest will be manageable. Finally, completing the disclosure process will protect employees as well as the university from accusations of misconduct.

According to the APS, the term conflict of commitment relates to an individual University employee’s distribution of effort between employment obligations to the University and 'outside’ professional activities that are generally encouraged, such as consulting, the authorship of educational materials, involvement with professional societies, and participation on review panels, etc. Such activities are expected insofar as they promote professional development of disclosers and enrich their contributions to the institution, to their profession and to the community. However, a conflict of commitment arises when professional service or research contracted outside the University, consultations, or other outside activities (e.g., outside teaching or business) interfere with the paramount obligations to students, colleagues, and the primary missions of the University. Conflicts of commitment primarily involve questions of obligation and effort, but are often tied to financial remuneration or other inducements, and in such cases may also constitute conflicts of interest. Other affiliations that present more obvious concern are ‘outside’ positions of administrative authority (e.g., directorship), and ownership of a business entity.

Traditionally, the University has allowed employees to be employed in remunerative consultative or research capacities when such employment did not involve more than one-sixth of their time and energy. That translates into 19.5 days per each semester. In addition, regular and periodic consulting, remunerated scholarship and service activities required department approval.

While the processes outlined in this policy speak to the oversight activities by Office of Conflicts of Interest under the direction of the Vice Chancellor of Research, they do not preclude the obligations of university employees to report to other departments using the appropriate disclosure mechanisms, as each situation warrants. In particular, any University employee or student who knows or suspects fiscal misconduct is required to report such misconduct as set forth in the Administrative Policy Statement on Fiscal Misconduct Reporting.  In addition, the Procurement Service Center (PSC) has a disclosure form that should be employed when less than arms-length business transactions are conducted. The Technology Transfer Office should be contacted when new technology discovery/development occurs as part of, or overlaps with, the employee’s university activities. The Compliance Director for the Office of Conflicts of Interest will act as a resource to employees with inquiries about such types of reporting. 

C. Examples

Examples Relevant to Researcher / Academic Conflicts of Interest Situations

The following three categories are examples of activities and situations related to actual or potential conflicts of interest or commitment:

  1. Activities that are permissible include (but are not limited to):
    • A.  Participation in professional association activities, participation in scientific or professional activities associated with government entities (federal, state, or local), editorial responsibilities;
    • B.  Professional activities that occur in university departments other than the one(s) for which the employee is primarily hired;
    • C.  Authorship of educational materials where the materials are not required to be purchased by students of the author. (If self-authored materials are expected to be purchased by students of the author, departmental review and approval is required); Use of Self-Authored Instructional Material Approval Form
    • D.  Department approved consulting/teaching for outside institutions of higher education, service on boards or committees of outside institutions of higher education;
    • E.  Department approved consulting or service to an outside public entity for which compensation does not exceed university policy thresholds;
    • F.  Consulting or service to an outside entity where there is clearly no overlap of activities/responsibilities between the outside entity and the university and which is limited to the timeframe specified within the 1/6th rule;
  2. Activities that present, or may appear to present, potential conflicts of interest include (but are not limited to):
    • A.  University responsibilities that provide an employee/student with the opportunity to direct/divert university business to a business entity in which he or she has a significant financial or other interest;
    • B.  Conducting university research the results of which could affect the finances of a business entity in which the employee/student has a significant financial interest;
    • C.  University receipt of funding for an employee's/student's university research from a business entity in which the employee/student has a significant financial interest;
    • D. Assignment of students or graduate assistants to duties that benefit a business entity in which the person in charge of assignment of those duties has a significant financial interest;
    • E.  Use of university facilities, supplies and/or personnel for the business of a business entity in which the employee/student has a significant financial interest;
    • F.  Providing exclusive access of university research to a business entity in which the employee/student has a significant financial interest, unless the business entity is the sponsor of the research
  3. Activities that clearly present such serious problems as to be incompatible with University policies include (but are not limited to):
    • A.  Assumption of responsibilities for an outside organization that divert a university employee from his or her attention to university duties, or create other conflicts of loyalty.
    • B.  Use for personal profit of unpublished information emanating from university research or other confidential university sources, or assisting an outside organization by giving it unreasonably exclusive access to such information (this section does not supersede Regent policy on classified research); or consulting under arrangements that impose obligations that conflict with university patent policy or with the university's obligations to research sponsors.
    • C.  Conduct of research (that could and ordinarily would be carried on within the University) elsewhere to the disadvantage of the university and its legitimate interests.

D. Review and Evaluation of Disclosures

This section focuses on the procedures to be followed to identify and resolve researcher/ academic conflicts of interest or commitment.

Step 1. Disclosure by Academic/Research Personnel (discloser)

All faculty, and any other employee, student, consultant, collaborator,or any other person acting as an agent of, or affiliated by contract or agreement with the university who has responsibility for the design, conduct or reporting of research are considered essential to the research process and must disclose any significant financial interests and external professional activities that could compromise university decision making or duties (here forward to be referred to as a "discloser")(See an expanded list of Research Personnel for whom this disclosure policy applies in Section I. Definitions). For university employees and students, disclosure occurs via a standardized electronic processes. These disclosures must be submitted annually through a web-based form (disclosure) and updated within 30 days of a status change]. For other types of affiliations, or urgent and high risk situations, an approved alternative reporting mechanisms may exist, but the intention of meeting federal regulations and university policy requirements is the same.  

The disclosure report must be revised whenever there is a significant change in outside interests or activities (e.g., new purchase of stocks, forming a new company, entering a new partnership, agreeing to consult, accepting a position on a board or review panel, travel for PHS/NIH sponsored researchers, etc.)

Disclosures will be reviewed through the Office of Conflicts of Interest and Commitment (COIC Office). Disclosures can be used to satisfy researcher/academic conflict of interest reporting requirements of the Office of Contracts and Grants (OCG), the Institutional Review Board (IRB), Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC), Venture Partners at CU Boulder (formerly the Technology Transfer Office), Campus Controller’s Office, etc. 

Step 2. Initial Review and Analysis: Office of Conflicts of Interest and Commitment

The Office of Conflict of Interest and Commitment (COIC Office) will review the disclosure and make a determination whether the activities disclosed are clearly permissible or not. If the disclosed activities are clearly permissible, the COIC Office will provide approval notification to the discloser and update the discloser’s status in its records. 

If the activities are not clearly permissible, the COIC Office will follow up with the discloser, and any other parties believed to be relevant to the process, in order to work towards an accurate status determination.

Step 3: Evaluation and Development of Management Plans, as Necessary

When necessary, the COIC Compliance Director, will develop viable management plans to address the identified conflicts (See Section E: Management Plans for COIC Situations). (At the Boulder campus, the instrument used in researcher/academic conflicts of interest situations is a memorandum of understanding [MOU] ). Other than in exceptional circumstances, a draft MOU shall be provided to the discloser for review with an opportunity to discuss modifications, within 30 days of review. Again, other parties believed to be relevant to the situation may be contacted in order to facilitate this process. Execution of a MOU occurs by obtaining (electronic) signatures from the discloser, the unit head (academic chairperson or institute director), and the responsible dean. If the discloser is the unit head, the MOU should be submitted to the appropriate dean. If the discloser is a dean, the MOU should be submitted to the Provost.

Step 4. Secondary Evaluation and Development of Management Plans: Committees' Roles

  • a. When the Compliance Director has not fully determined that the disclosed activities are clearly permissible, and/or where there are additional and/or significant concerns, the standing Conflicts of Interest and Commitment Committee (COIC Committee) will review the case. (See Section F: Conflict of Interest Personnel). Some cases will necessitate a full review and vote. Other cases may be significant but the status and management plan needs are obvious, and standard processes will be implemented with notifications to the COIC Committee in case it has any additional concerns.
  • b. For exceptionally difficult issues, the Compliance Director may want to consult with the COIC Advisory Committee (See Section F: Conflict of Interest Personnel).

Step 5: Approval, Negotiation, or First Appeal

Once signatures are obtained on the MOU, the matter will be considered to be ‘in compliance’. Until that time, proposal submissions, funding awards distribution and other types of campus approvals/processes that are dependent upon an approved compliance status can only be conferred/administered in light of regulatory stipulations, and university policies and  procedures. 

If the discloser does not agree with the review process findings and/or the MOU, the discloser may submit, in writing, her/his concerns for further consideration. Discussions may occur only with the COIC Office, or in consultation with members of the standing COIC Committee, the unit head, the dean, or other experts/administrators on campus, etc. For consistency purposes the COI MOU template is not altered except for the section that provides a description of the situation. However, a companion instrument, e.g. Attachment B, may be utilized to meet any unique concerns/clarifications of the discloser, the University, or a federal sponsor. By doing do, agreement to the MOU may be more readily reached.

If an agreement is not reached, the discloser’s compliance status remains as ‘Unresolved Conflict”. This status is likely to be prohibitive to other approvals and processes relevant to academic/researcher activities.

Step 6: Final Appeal

If agreement is not reached after following the above processes and exhausting all reasonable avenues of discussion, the COIC Committee, in conjunction with the COIC Director, will make a recommendation to the Provost for a final determination. The committee shall have 60 days from the date it receives an appeal to forward its recommendation and supporting materials to the Provost. Should it take longer than 60 days, the committee shall provide an explanation of the delay to the discloser and Provost.

E. Management Plans

Management Plans for Conflict of Interest or Commitment Situations

If, at the conclusion of a risk analysis, it is determined that a real or potential conflict of interest and/or commitment exists, a management plan, focused on the areas of university responsibilities at risk, will be developed. The management plan will address one or more of the following areas:

  1. Scientific/scholarly integrity
  2. Students/subordinates
  3. Human subjects
  4. Intellectual property
  5. Procurement/purchasing
  6. Space utilization
  7. Educational training
  8. Federal agency notification, as required.

F. Conflict of Interest Personnel

Compliance Director

Under the supervision of the Vice Chancellor for Research and with guidance from the Advisory Committee, the Compliance Director will, as described above, take a key role in the review process. In addition, the Compliance Director will (again under supervision of the Vice Chancellor for Research and with guidance from the Advisory Committee) have other responsibilities:

  1. Maintain records of disclosures and reviews across campus and complete a yearly report of campus conflict of interest issues for the Provost, Chancellor, and President.
  2. Coordinate procedures with the Office of Contracts and Grants to help meet conflict of interest requirements for external funding; with the Technology Transfer Office to make sure commercial applications of university IP meet conflict of interest requirements; and with the IRB to meet conflict of interest requirements in human subjects research.
  3. Inform faculty of the conflict of interest policies and the importance of compliance, offer training sessions and resources to faculty and chairs on conflict of interest procedures, and develop a set of management plan templates that can help researchers know what to expect when they have a potential conflict of interest.
  4. Monitor compliance with conflict of interest policies across campus and report problems to the Vice Chancellor for Research and bring policy concerns to the Conflict of Interest Committee.

Advisory Committee

This informal committee (consisting of the Associate Vice Chancellor for Research Integrity and Compliance [AVCR], University Legal Counsel, Director of OCG, and senior management for Technology Transfer) will give guidance to the Compliance Director, provide an additional resource for faculty, chairs, and deans, and help deal with special problems and disputes that arise over conflict of interest issues. It will meet informally as needed.

Conflict of Interest Committee

The committee will consist of at least eight faculty — appointed by the Vice Chancellor for Research and recommended by the associate deans for natural sciences, social sciences, humanities, and engineering, and the Deans of other colleges on campus. The committee members will elect one of the faculty as the chair. The Associate Vice Chancellor for Research Integrity and Compliance (AVCR), University Legal Counsel and Director of OCG, senior management for Technology Transfer, and Director of the Office of Conflict of Interest will serve as non-voting members to the committee. The committee will meet at least once per semester to discuss policy issues and to conduct necessary business as needed.

Key duties of the Conflict of Interest Committee will include:

  1. The handling of appeals regarding conflict of interest management rulings
  2. The provision of advisory input to appropriate appointing authorities (e.g. Chairs, Deans, etc.) on matters of alleged conflict of interest or commitment violations; and
  3. Initiation of changes to this policy.

A committee member shall be recused from discussion and voting on a particular matter if:

  1. The committee member has a compelling personal interest in the matter (such as research or academic collaboration with the faculty member under consideration); or
  2. The committee member has a financial interest in the matter under consideration.

G. Confidentiality

All records and information provided by an employee for the purpose of disclosure and management and all official records of disclosure and management shall be considered confidential. Any information disclosed by an employee as required by this policy shall be used solely for the purpose of administering this policy and may not be used for any other purpose unless required by law. 

Unauthorized disclosure of any such information by an employee shall be deemed to be unethical behavior and shall be punishable under the Faculty Handbook, Part IV. REVIEW OF FACULTY CONDUCT AND SANCTIONS FOR UNPROFESSIONAL CONDUCT BY A FACULTY MEMBER.

H. Violations & Sanctions

  1. Conflict of interest/commitment violations may include, but are not limited to:
    • A. Failure to disclose conflicts of interest or commitment;
    • B. False or inadequate disclosure of conflicts;
    • C. Failure to adhere to a prescribed conflict of interest/commitment management plan;
    • D. Failure to adhere to educational and reporting timeline requirements.
  2. Alleged conflict of interest violations should first be brought to the attention of the appropriate unit head (Chair or Director) and the Compliance Director. The Compliance Director, in consultation with the unit head (or appropriate designees), should make an initial determination on the veracity and seriousnessof the alleged conflict of interest violation(s). If it is determined that an allegation should be dismissed, the basis for dismissal should be documented and reported to the Associate Vice Chancellor for Research. Furthermore, if the dismissed allegation is determined to be malicious in intent, that shall be reported to the immediate administrative supervisor of the person making the unfounded allegation as per Part IV. Section B. 1. of the Faculty Handbook. If alleged violations are found to have a factual basis, the unit head and Compliance Director will consult with the subject of the allegation to attempt to address the conflict through the development of management plans or other administrative actions. If the conflict can be so resolved, that should also be documented and reported to the Associate Vice Chancellor for Research.

    If the allegations cannot be resolved or addressedat the unit level, the matter will be referred to Conflict of Interest Committee (COIC), and both the AVCR and Legal Counsel notified. The COIC will consider the violation allegations. The COIC may use the Advisory Committee as a resource, but the COIC will be ultimately responsible for providing the AVCR, the Compliance Director, and the appropriate appointing authorities with a written report of the committee’s findings, and any recommendations for corrective or disciplinary action. In some cases, the order of this process may vary. Investigative activities regarding a potential conflict may involve any number of experts and these may be consulted prior to meeting with the subject of the allegation if there is concern that notification of an investigation may disrupt another ongoing University process, for example, corroborating evidence may be altered by the subject, subordinates might feel threatened by the subject etc. Although the order of the process of inquiry and investigation may vary, in all instances the subject of the allegation will have an opportunity to explain, in full, his/her activities relevant to the case, and provide evidence supporting his/her statements. 

  3. In addition to the internal procedures of the institution, the university will adhere to federal and state regulatory agency requirements relevant to the type of funding involved.
  4. Sanctions and Discipline
    • For violations of this policy, the Committee may recommend one or more of the following disciplinary and/or administrative actions:
      • A. Disciplinary actions (including but not restricted to):
        • 1) Emphasizing, orally or in writing, to the discloser his or her professional responsibilities;
        • 2) Oral or written admonition of the discloser;
        • 3) Confidential reprimand of the discloser;
        • 4) Public reprimand of the discloser;
        • 5) Reassignment, temporarily or permanently, of the discloser’s office or other working space (with the appropriate consent of any academic unit affected);
        • 6) Reassignment, temporarily or permanently, of the discloser’s courses or other duties;
        • 7) Reassignment, temporarily or permanently, of the employee to another academic unit (with the appropriate consent of any academic unit affected);
        • 8) Withholding raises or privileges for the employee for a specified period or until the employee demonstrates, under the terms of the sanction, that he or she has terminated the unprofessional conduct;
        • 9) Temporary or continuing reduction in salary or privileges of the employee;
        • 10) Suspension of the employee for a period stated or until stated conditions are met; or
        • 11) Termination of employment or dismissal of the employee
      • B.  Suspending the review or processing of research project proposals/protocols by the Office of Contracts and Grants and/or regulatory committees;
      • C.  Freezing of research funds, other research restrictions, etc.;
      • D.  Withholding payment owed under a purchasing contract relating to the conflict;
      • E.  Rescission of University contracts entered into in violation of this Conflict of Interest Policy or of state law;
      • F.  Recovery of the amount of financial benefit received by an employee as a result of his or her violation of this policy;
      • G.  Other similar and appropriate actions.

I. Definitions