University Research:

Most Federal Agencies Need to Better Protect against Financial Conflicts of Interest

GAO-04-31: Published: Nov 14, 2003. Publicly Released: Nov 14, 2003.

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In fiscal year 2001, federal agencies provided $19 billion for university research, a vital part of the nation's research and development effort. GAO was asked to examine federal agencies' actions to ensure that (1) the results of the university research grants they fund are made available to the public and (2) universities receiving such grants implement policies for identifying and managing possible financial conflicts of interest. GAO reviewed the actions of eight federal agencies and conducted a Web-based survey of 200 leading research universities (refer to GAO-04-223SP). GAO also met with officials in the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to discuss the National Science and Technology Council's role in coordinating federal science policy.

Each of the eight federal agencies GAO examined relies on university scientists who receive federally funded research grants to make the results available to the public. Although university scientists customarily seek to publish their research results in peer-reviewed journals, agencies cannot require such publication as a condition for funding because it is impossible to ensure in advance that the results will be accepted for publication. Agencies do, however, explicitly encourage funding recipients to make results public. The Departments of Agriculture, Defense, and Energy; the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) also disseminate the results of their funded research by posting them on their Web sites. Officials from these agencies said that posting the results is an effective way to share information among scientists, as well as with the public. In contrast, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) do not post research results on their Web sites. According to NIH officials, the risk associated with posting researchers' final reports before they have been validated by peer review is too great in the biomedical field. The Department of Education is considering how best to widely disseminate the results of research it funds. NIH and NSF are the only federal agencies that require universities to implement policies for identifying and managing possible financial conflicts of interest for the research they fund. The other six agencies do not have financial conflict of interest standards for university research grants. Of the 171 universities that responded to the GAO survey, 148 (87 percent) reported that all of their federally funded research is covered by financial conflict of interest policies that are consistent with either NIH's or NSF's standards. However, 17 universities reported that they do not extend either agency's requirements to cover research grants from other federal agencies. Unless federal agencies uniformly require that universities implement conflict of interest policies, the government cannot properly safeguard against financial conflicts of interest that might bias federally funded research.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Department of Education agreed with our recommendation. Therefore, the Institute of Education Sciences has begun to post on its Web site final technical reports that contractors have prepared with Institute funding, after they have been peer reviewed.

    Recommendation: To better ensure that the findings and results of scientifically valid research in education are widely disseminated, the Secretary of Education should direct the new Institute of Education Sciences to post the final technical reports of the research it funds on its Web site.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Section 8008 of the America Competes Act (Pub. L. 110-69, Aug. 9 2007) requires that recipients of grants or contracts funded by the Departments of Commerce, Energy, and Education under the act certify that no funds derived from the grant or contract will be made available through a subcontract or in any other manner to another person who has a financial interest or other conflict of interest in the person awarded the grant or contract, unless previously disclosed and approved in the process of entering into a contract or awarding a grant.

    Recommendation: To safeguard against bias in the design, conduct, or reporting of federally funded research, the National Science and Technology Council should coordinate the development of uniform federal requirements for universities and other funding recipients to identify and resolve financial conflicts of interest. The NIH and NSF standards provide a useful starting point for this requirement.

    Agency Affected: National Science and Technology Council


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