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CAUT Bulletin Archives

January 2001

Ensuring Integrity in Medical Research at Harvard University

At a time when entrepreneuria zeal threatens to blur the lines between university research and product promotion, Harvard's faculty of medicine is ensuring the integrity of its medical science with tough conflict of interest guidelines for its researchers.

Created in response to public concern over the growing links between academic medicine and the pharmaceutical industry, Harvard's "Policy on Conflict of Interest and Commitment" forbids a faculty member from participating in clinical research on a technology owned by a business in which the faculty member owns stock or has a consulting relationship.

The policy does have a de minimis exception that allows a faculty member to own stock in such a business if the stock is in a publically held, widely traded business, its value does not exceed $20,000 and there is no relationship between the ownership of the stock and the research in question. Research can also be conducted on a technology owned by a business with which the faculty member has a consulting relationship, provided that the income from that relationship does not exceed $10,000 a year.

Harvard's rules stand in stark contrast to the situation at most other American and Canadian universities, where conflict of interest policies are couched in general terms and are focused on disclosure of potential conflicts rather than on actually preventing financial entanglement between researchers and private industry.

Indeed, the lack of similar controls elsewhere prompted a fierce debate at Harvard over whether its own tough standards should be relaxed. The debate was recently resolved with a decision to strengthen, rather than weaken, the existing policy and with a call by the dean of the faculty of medicine "for a national dialogue to discuss the important issues around conflict of interest, public trust in the integrity of science, and scientific advancement."

The full text of Harvard's guidelines and policy on conflicts of interest is online at