Embargoed For Release: 31 March 1998 at 16:00:00 ET US

Contact: Susan McGreevey
Massachusetts General Hospital

Corporate Gifts Pose Ethical Quandries For Scientists

Close to half of all academic scientists accept research-related gifts from companies, gifts they believe often come with strings attached. According to a study published in the April 1 Journal of the American Medical Association, the restrictions and expectations placed on gifts may put scientists at odds with the policies of their universities.

The study, based on survey results from more than 2,100 faculty members at the 50 most research-intensive universities, indicates that research-related gifts ought to be subjected to more significant oversight by universities. The study was conducted by researchers from the Health Policy Research and Development Unit at the Massachusetts General Hospital and the University of Minnesota.

Research-related gifts -- including biomaterials, discretionary funding, equipment, trips to professional meetings and support for students -- are a fact of life at many universities, the survey found. More than 43 percent of the survey respondents said they had received a research-related gift in the last three years. Of those who received a gift, 66 percent reported that these gifts were important to their research.

Unlike corporate support of research in the form of grants or contracts, research-related gifts are rarely subjected to significant oversight by universities because they are given to individuals without an institutionally negotiated research grant or contract. In addition, many recipients assume that gifts are innocuous and do not require university oversight.

However, the JAMA study suggests that these gifts may come with problematic restrictions and expectations that justify more active university management. For example, accepting a gift may obligate recipients to provide donors with pre-publication review that may significantly delay publication or require them not to share research materials or information with other academic colleagues. In other cases, donors may expect recipients to turn over all ownership rights of patentable results that arise from a gift. By accepting a gift with this restriction, faculty members may be violating technology transfer policies in place at most universities.

"Research-related gifts are an important method of resource exchange for scientists and companies," notes the study's lead author, Eric G. Campbell, PhD, of Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. "But the informal nature of these relationships can put researchers in a murky ethical position. Our findings indicate that it may be wise for them to look a gift horse in the mouth."

More than half of recipients reported that donors expected acknowledgment in publications (63 percent), that the gift not be passed on to a third party (60 percent) and that it be used only for the agreed-upon purpose (59 percent). Approximately one-third of recipients reported that the donor wanted pre-publication review of any articles or reports stemming from use of the gift; 30 percent believed that the company expected testing of their products; and 19 percent indicated a donor expected ownership of all patentable results from the research in which a gift was used.

These perceived expectations differed according to the type of gift received. Biomaterials, such as cells, tissues and similar materials, were most likely to be associated with problematic restrictions and conditions, the authors noted. They were also the most frequently received gifts (24 percent of respondents).

In addition, the study authors indicated that some companies and faculty members may use gifts to bypass institutional policies and administrative structures designed to manage relationships between industry and researchers. This type of activity is probably most applicable to gifts of discretionary funds, which were received by 15 percent of survey respondents.

"Our data do not indicate that gifts should be prohibited or heavily regulated," said David Blumenthal, MD, MPP, chief of the Health Policy Research and Development Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital and a study co-author. "But universities and faculty members need to be more aware of potential problems with industry gifts."

To assure that corporate gifts are free of problematic expectations and restrictions, the study authors recommend a set of general guidelines for accepting industrial gifts:

The study data came from a survey that asked academic life scientists what, if any, research-related gifts they had received in the last three years; how important these gifts were to their research; and what, if any, expectations they believed donors had concerning these gifts. More than 2,100 faculty members out of 3,394 surveyed returned completed questionnaires, yielding an overall response rate of 64 percent.

Also a co-author of the study is Karen Seashore Louis, PhD, of the College of Education and Human Development of the University of Minnesota. The research was supported by grants from the National Center for Human Genome Research of the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and the Commonwealth Fund Task Force on Academic Health Centers.