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Consulting, research encouraged by legislature

by Richard Veilleux - June 18, 2007

Faculty and members of faculty bargaining units may continue to consult and do research with private and public entities, as a result of recently enacted legislation.

The Connecticut General Assembly provided that such arrangements do not violate the state’s code of ethics.

The legislation provides that faculty and members of the faculty bargaining units at UConn, its Health Center, and at other public colleges and universities in Connecticut who are engaged in consulting or research with public and private entities, may use a separate process for reviewing and approving such agreements.

They will not be bound by the provision in the state code of ethics that bars certain business transactions between private companies and state employees.

UConn officials were instrumental in convincing legislators of the need for the change.

“The legislature came to understand that public higher education institutions, as distinct from other state agencies, are expected to interact with private entities,” says Rachel Rubin, UConn’s director of compliance.

“This legislation will ensure that our faculty will be able to continue their contributions to the state’s economic development and quality of life without inadvertently violating the state ethics code. It puts us on a level playing field with every other research institution in the country.”

The bill, adopted unanimously in the House and Senate, awaits Gov. M. Jodi Rell’s signature.

The state’s code of ethics is predicated on a regulatory framework that attempts to build a wall between private industries and state agencies, and between employees of those industries and state employees.

Recent interpretations of the statutes by staff of the Office of State Ethics have created a situation where UConn faculty would be prevented from conducting research in collaboration with major Connecticut companies who fund the projects and, in turn, bring new products and ideas to the state’s citizens.

The ruling also severely curtailed a faculty member’s ability to provide consulting and research services to a wide range of firms, something that faculty at virtually every other institution in the country enjoy.

Specifically, these interpretations prevented physicians at the UConn Health Center who help develop new medications while performing research for or collaborating with pharmaceutical companies, from prescribing that company’s medication to patients when performing clinical work. With the governor’s signature, that, too, will change.

“The legislature protected us from rulings that could close down many avenues of faculty consulting,” says Dr. Scott Wetstone, director of health affairs policy planning and an associate professor of community medicine and health care.

“The bill maintains our right to continue these relationships, as long as it’s done ethically and fairly.”

The legislation charges the University with creating and enforcing policies to prevent faculty from engaging in collaborative research or consulting agreements that create conflicts of interest or inappropriately use proprietary information.

It also calls for an oversight committee at each constituent unit to monitor compliance with the legislation.

At UConn, these policies were recently developed, and were approved by the Board of Trustees in April.

The policy requires faculty to fulfill all their professional responsibilities to the University, and to gain school or college and University approval prior to entering into any consulting or research agreement.

Faculty who do not obtain that approval become subject to the authority of the Office of State Ethics.

Wetstone says the policies are rigorous, and provide for semi-annual audits by internal auditors.

The audits will be shared with an oversight committee comprising both internal and external appointees.

“Developing a University-wide policy demonstrated the ability of Storrs and the Health Center to work together,” says Ilze Krisst, assistant vice provost at the Office of Sponsored Programs and a crafter of the internal policies.

“The policy meets everybody’s needs. It is a model of the campuses working together well under strict time pressures.”

Another ethics ruling, which prevented companies doing business with the state, or those that are registered with the state as lobbyists, from contributing to the agencies they work with, was amended in January to allow corporations to continue making donations to UConn.

University officials successfully argued that UConn would lose tens of millions of dollars annually if corporations, who traditionally enter into research and other partnerships with the University and are among UConn’s largest donors, were prohibited from doing so.

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