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Oklahoma U proposes changes to conflict of interest policy in wake of federal investigation

By David Schwartz
Published: October 14th, 2019

A widening investigation into IP theft and foreign influence in U.S. research institutions involving as many as 77 universities nationwide has prompted Oklahoma University officials to push changes to its conflict of interest policy.

The proposed changes come after FBI agents visited the Norman campus and OU Health Sciences Center in Oklahoma City over the summer amid “increased review of college and university activities, particularly those related to grants and contracts, controlled research, and interactions with international institutions and researchers,” according to an e-mail from the OU Office of Legal Counsel.

OU general counsel Anil Gollahalli said the increased scrutiny shouldn’t come as a surprise.

“If you’ve been watching what’s going on in the national stage, the federal government has become much more interested in disclosures of conflicts of interest because of what the federal government sees as undue influence by foreign nations on our research base,” Gollahalli said. “We want to make sure that we’re in step with the best practice with where the federal government is and disclosing conflicts.”

The new policy establishes a central committee made up of faculty and staff to review and manage COI. Previously, oversight was left to individual departments, which allowed wide variations in enforcement across campus. The policy will be presented at the Board of Regents’ meeting on Oct. 23 for final approval.

“We can’t be sure that we’re managing conflicts appropriately if we don’t have a good policy that mandates their disclosure, right?” Gollahalli said. “What we’re doing is trying to set forth a good, solid baseline, and we’ve got to educate our faculty.”

“With the federal government making sure that we are not being influenced by international governments in terms of selling state secrets, I think the university decided that we needed to have a state-of-the-art, state-of-the-practice conflict of interest form in place to protect faculty and staff from any overreach from other entities,” said Amy Cerato, a presidential professor in the Gallogly College of Engineering who serves as secretary of the OU Faculty Senate..

In addition to the change in oversight, the new policy limits employees from having significant financial interest in an outside company, use of other employees or students in a personal interest, and gifts greater than $20 in value, among other provisions.

Like most universities, OU and its Health Sciences Center have faculty with dual appointments with Chinese universities. These relationships are not inappropriate on the face but need to be disclosed and monitored, Gollahalli noted.

One program under particular scrutiny is China’s Thousand Talents program, which is an initiative sponsored by the Chinese government to recruit ethnic Chinese researchers who work or study overseas. American intelligence officials believe the program’s clandestine mission is to facilitate the transfer of technology back to China.

Source: NonDoc

Posted under: University-Industry Engagement Week

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