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Tips for Managing Conflicts of Interest or Commitment

Virginia Tech faculty members owe their primary professional allegiance to the University, and their primary commitment of time and intellectual energies should be to the education, research, and scholarship programs of the institution. Outside professional relationships, can result in conflicts regarding time and energies which represent conflicts of commitment. In addition, these activities can result in conflicts of interest when there is a divergence between an individual's private interests and his or her University obligations such that an independent observer might reasonably question whether the individual's professional actions or decisions are determined by considerations of personal gain, financial or otherwise. A conflict of interest depends on the situation, and not on the character or actions of the individual.

Faculty members should conduct their affairs so as to avoid conflicts of commitment and avoid or minimize conflicts of interest, and must respond appropriately when conflicts of interest arise. Disclosure of such interests is required under University policy 13010.
These tips are meant to serve as a brief guide to faculty about issues that need to be considered when engaging in outside professional activities. These cover the following situations:

[Acknowledgement:  These tips were taken from Stanford University and modified for the Virginia Tech context.]


If you CONSULT for a company/organization:

  1. Your primary commitment is to the University and your individual consulting agreements should not conflict with that obligation or with any University or College policies
  2. You need to ensure that your consulting agreements explicitly recognize that title to all potentially-patentable inventions conceived, or first reduced to practice, in whole or in part, in the course of your University responsibilities, or with more than incidental use of University resources, must be assigned to the University. This means that your consulting agreements must not grant to outside entities access to ideas that did not arise as a direct result of your consulting activities or that would be deemed an extension of your University activities.
  3. You must not provide the company/organization with early or exclusive access to results of your Virginia Tech research, unless approved by the Office of Sponsored Programs.
  4. Your consulting activities need to be as separate from your research as possible, so that these activities are not seen as an extension of your sponsored research at Virginia Tech.
  5. Your consulting agreements must not delay or prohibit publications resulting from your Virginia Tech research.
  6. The scope of your consulting responsibilities needs to be very specific so that it does not grant the company/organization access to work not done under the consulting agreement or interfere with intellectual property disclosure or publications resulting from your academic work.
  7. Remember that a consulting agreement is a legal document often drawn up by the company/organization's lawyers. Who is your advocate? You may wish to have your attorney review any legal documents you sign.
  8. It might be helpful for you to provide the company/organization with a copy of the Virginia Tech policy on intellectual property (13000)
  9. You must disclose your relationship with the company/organization in publications and public discussions of any of your research that is sponsored by the company/organization or related to it.

If you serve on a SCIENTIFIC ADVISORY BOARD for a company:

  1. You are permitted to sit on a Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) because such a position normally does not carry, nor is it perceived to carry, management responsibility. However, your primary commitment is to the University, and your service on an advisory board should not conflict with that obligation or with any other University or College policies.
  2. It is advisable to have a formal consulting agreement when serving on an SAB.
  3. Sometimes service on an advisory board is rewarded with stock or stock options. Since such equity can compromise objectivity, it always needs to be disclosed. Concern is heightened if human participants are involved in studies of the entity's products or service.
  4. You must not provide the entity with early or exclusive access to the results of your research, unless approved by the Office of Sponsored Programs.
  5. You must keep your financial interests arising from service on advisory boards separate from your research and University obligations in order to:
    • protect your students, trainees, and others whom you are responsible for directing, from undue influences or the compromise of academic freedoms;
    • preserve the integrity of your research;
    • cause no harm to human participants in your research;
    • see that any creations or discoveries that arise during the course of your research or scholarly activities at Virginia Tech are not "pipelined," defined as passed along at an early stage or by privileged access to the company/organization, and are disclosed in a timely fashion to Virginia Tech Intellectual Properties; and
    • avoid compromise to the free exchange of ideas or delay or prohibit publications arising from your University activities.
  6. You must disclose your relationship with the company/organization in publications and public discussions of any of your research that is sponsored by the company/organization or related to it.

If you serve on a BOARD OF DIRECTORS:

  1. Service on a Board of Directors carries legal fiduciary responsibility but generally not line management responsibility, hence such service is generally permissible. However, your primary commitment is to the University and your service on a Board should not conflict with that obligation or conflict with any other University or College policies.
  2. Your relationship to the company should not interfere with your primary obligations as a faculty member or University employee. The time devoted to service on a Board should be counted as consulting time in ensuring you are in compliance with the University's limits on external consulting activity.
  3. You must keep your financial interests arising from service on a Board of Directors separate from your research and University obligations in order to:
    • protect your students, trainees, and others whom you are responsible for directing, from undue influences or the compromise of academic freedoms;
    • preserve the integrity of your research;
    • cause no harm to human participants in your research;
    • see that any creations or discoveries that arise during the course of your research or scholarly activities at Virginia Tech are not "pipelined," defined as passed along at an early stage or by privileged access to the company/organization, and are disclosed in a timely fashion to Virginia Tech Intellectual Properties; and
    • avoid compromise to the free exchange of ideas or delay or prohibit publications arising from your University activities.
  4. You must disclose this relationship in publications and public discussions of any of your research that is sponsored by the entity or related to the entity.

If you have STOCK OR STOCK OPTIONS in a company whose interests are related to your research, and/or you consult for the company:

  1. Be aware of the value of your stock or stock options so that you can report this accurately on an annual basis through the COISystem, or on any disclosure during the year. If the company is publicly traded, the market value of the equity is estimated at its highest point during the reporting period; non-publicly traded equity including stock options are reported regardless of their market value.
  2. Equity can raise the issue of such incentives compromising objectivity, particularly where human subjects are involved.
  3. You must disclose this relationship in publications and public discussions of any of your research that is sponsored by the company or related to the company.

If you have a TECHNOLOGY LICENSING ARRANGEMENT with a company through Virginia Tech Intellectual Properties:

  1. As a University employee, title to all potentially patentable inventions conceived, or first reduced to practice, in whole or in part, by you in the course of your University responsibilities, or with more than incidental use of University resources, must be assigned to the University.  See University policy on intellectual property (13000).
  2. The University must avoid conflicts of interest in licensing technology to a company in which the inventor has a financial interest; thus it is in everyone's best interest if the inventor maintains a cordial and willing attitude in working with whatever company ends up licensing the technology or discovery. Faculty may help VTIP to evaluate potential licensees, but the selection of the licensee rests with VTIP.
  3. New developments relating to this intellectual property must also be fairly licensed, and you must not preferentially pass or "pipeline" intellectual property or unpublished research results derived from other funding sources, such as NSF, NIH or another company/organization, to a company in which you have a financial or founding interest.
  4. You must disclose this financial interest in publications and public discussions of any of your research that is sponsored by the company or related to the company.

If you are a FOUNDER of a company:

  1. It is assumed that you have both an intellectual and financial commitment to the company; however, your primary commitment is to the University and your commitment to the company should not conflict with that obligation or conflict with any other University or College policies. While you are on sabbatical leave (full or part pay), you are a Virginia Tech employee. When you are on a leave of absence without pay, you are not a Virginia Tech employee.
  2. You must not provide the company with early or exclusive access to the results of your research, unless approved by the Office of Sponsored Programs.
  3. You must keep your financial interests arising from service on a Board of Directors separate from your research and University obligations in order to:
    • protect your students, trainees, and others whom you are responsible for directing, from undue influences or the compromise of academic freedoms;
    • preserve the integrity of your research;
    • cause no harm to human participants in your research;
    • see that any creations or discoveries that arise during the course of your research or scholarly activities at Virginia Tech are not "pipelined," defined as passed along at an early stage or by privileged access to the company/organization, and are disclosed in a timely fashion to Virginia Tech Intellectual Properties; and
    • avoid compromise to the free exchange of ideas or delay or prohibit publications arising from your University activities.
  4. You must disclose this relationship in publications and public discussions of any of your research that is sponsored by the entity or related to the entity.

If you have a LOAN with the company:

  1. Indebtedness from a loan might compromise or be perceived as compromising your objectivity.
  2. You must disclose this relationship in publications and public discussions of any of your research that is sponsored by the company or related to the company.

If you give TALKS for a company:

  1. Don't become a spokesperson for the company or its products or services.
  2. Remember that honoraria can be used as incentives, and incentives can compromise objectivity.
  3. Keep your talks fair and balanced, i.e., don't just talk about the company's product.
  4. If you are paid to give a talk, you need to disclose this to the audience during your talk, as well as disclose this in publications and public discussions of any of your research that is sponsored by the company or related to the company.

If a Company/Organization Offers You or Virginia Tech a Gift

Individuals cannot receive gifts for doing their University work.  This is a violation of the Code of Virginia.  Gifts to Virginia Tech, or to the Virginia Tech Foundation, from a company or industry can include such things as equipment or supplies, travel for trainees, or unrestricted research support. The important thing to remember is that there may well be an expectation on the part of the donor for a specific deliverable or early access to research results in response to a gift. It is important to communicate clearly that such expectations cannot be met. If you have a financial relationship with the company, gifts create a conflict of interest that must be disclosed.

  1. Faculty must use University and Foundation procedures to document the terms of all gifts so your freedoms are protected and the exact nature of the exchange is spelled out.  See University policies 3630 and 12115.
  2. Corporate gifts for educational activities should not create a venue for access to research results, an opportunity for promoting a company's product or products, or provide the company with preferential treatment.
  3. Unrestricted gifts for research support are donations and as such, the company receives no intellectual property rights or access to research results. Such gifts should not be accepted when specific research activities are targeted for the gift money by the donor. A gift may not have a 'scope of work' or other deliverable. Situations in which you have sponsored research as well as a gift from the same company can create problems because there may be a tacit expectation that the gift will be used to support the same work as the research contract and it may be difficult to sort out intellectual property ownership.

If You Wish to MAKE A GIFT to Your Own Department or Program

In order to assure that gifts comply with IRS regulations governing charitable contributions, and to assist in avoiding any appearance of conflict of interest, gifts from a faculty member to Virginia Tech:

  1. May not be placed in accounts under the control of the donor (e.g. neither the donor, nor any individual reporting to the donor, may have signature authority over the account);
  2. Should be placed in a unique account so that the source and use of the gifted funds can be clearly identified;
  3. May not be used to fund travel, capital purchases, or any other expense that could be construed by others to personally benefit the donor; and
  4. May not be used to fund the salary of the donor.