I imagine that, like me, you have been outraged with decisions and actions taken by politicians or other professionals when private interests seem to outweigh the obligations to which they are socially or professionally bound. When a mayor’s decision or when a professional action results in benefits for himself or for people in his relations, it is reasonable to ask ourselves what was at the origin of this result. It is also known that, when asked about their actions, those targeted are not only offended but can also present a reasoning logic that, in their opinion, supports their conduct.
Cases like the ones I’ve described are called conflicts of interest. This can be defined as a situation in which there is a conflict between an individual’s private interests and his or her professional obligations such that an independent observer might reasonably question whether the individual’s professional actions or decisions are affected by his or her private interest (Chinn and Kulakowski , 2006). One of the interesting characteristics of this definition is that it is based on what will be the perception of an independent observer and not on criteria about the greater or lesser economic or social value of any personal benefits.
There is, however, the difficulty with what cognitive scientists call motivated reasoning that leads us to think about a topic with the goal, consciously or unconsciously, of reaching the conclusion we want. It is motivated reasoning that makes us point out the faults that are not signalled to the other team and become indignant with those that are signalled to ours.
Motivated reasoning leads us to value arguments and facts favourable to our goals and to despise those that contradict them. Examples of goals or needs that can motivate reasoning can be private financial interests, the preservation of a positive self-image, or the protection of relationships with others to whom we are connected or on whom we materially or emotionally depend. Motivated reasoning prevents us from having the vision of the independent observer.
The usual way of dealing with this conflict has been to remove from the process all individuals with the potential to have a personal interest in the matter. A growing number of people, including myself, feel that this solution is ineffective as a conflict of interest is inevitable and organizations and individuals must know how to deal with it. For this, the situation needs to be analyzed by an independent observer to reduce the effect of motivated reasoning. In this way, even individuals with a conflict of interest can make relevant contributions to the decision-making process.
There are two essential instruments for an organization to deal with conflict of interest: conflict of interest policies and regulations and individual conduct. The first includes the form and mandatory nature of the conflict of interest declaration and who is responsible for reviewing and evaluating these declarations, as well as the mechanisms for the independent review of contracts and other decision proposals. Individual conduct is, for me, more important because it applies even when there are no explicit institutional policies or regulations for the conflict of interest. Professionals must be aware of it and able to identify potential conflicts and must assume with naturalness the need for a declaration of conflict of interest. This information should be included in the recommendation or justification for a certain action or decision. In particular, professionals should feel free to request an independent review whenever there is doubt on the interference of private interests.
Conflict of interest was the subject of a panel I was invited to at this year’s edition of the Science and Technology Transfer Professionals (ASTP) conference. It was moderated by George Summerfield, a lawyer with over 20 years of experience in intellectual property, and was attended by Jörn Erselius, director of Max-Planck Innovation. My role was to show the challenges facing Universities knowledge transfer professionals in the conflict between the requirements of companies seeking to license technologies and the University’s mission and fairness obligations. These challenges are more intense when there is a connection between inventors and companies seeking licensing, as in the case of startups created by researchers or when there is a long-term collaboration between them and the company.
One of the cases given as an example was that of the University of California, which has a review process where the proposed licensing decision of the technology transfer professional, together with the information on conflict of interest collected, are subject to independent analysis. The analyst evaluates the pieces of documentation that led to the proposed decision, relates it to other prior licensing decisions, and writes a recommendation. The decision proposal and the independent recommendation are taken together to the final decision-maker.
The opinion poll carried out in the session and the questions that followed the presentations demonstrated the audience’s concern with the topic, justifying the holding of the panel. For my part, I think I have managed to convey the inevitability of conflict of interest and the importance of individual conduct. On second thought, this conclusion is perhaps just the result of motivated reasoning. I need an independent observer.
Adapted from my column in Jornal i of June 8th, 2021