How Stanford Hides Conflicts of Interest

THERANOS’ DOWNFALL was perhaps the first time that Stanford’s ties with Silicon Valley received some much-needed criticism—the company’s disgraced founder, its first board member, many of its employees, and a good deal of its prestige had all come from Stanford. The whole affair became a testament to the scale and importance of our community’s involvement with the corporate world, and it inspired the Sphere to take a closer look at Stanford’s ties to the biotech industry. But we didn’t just discover the scale of these ties: we found ourselves before an alarming lack of accountability when it comes to keeping research and financial interests separate.

We started by going through all 127 full-time, non-courtesy professors in Biology, Chemistry, Bioengineering, and Chemical Engineering, and we checked what Bloomberg, Crunchbase, and the SEC had on them. Then, we went on to verify whether this information was current—through company websites, mentions on their own public CVs, or media coverage. Finally, we removed faculty whose links to businesses had nothing to do with biotech. In doing so, we confirmed that at least the following 24 had ties with (undercounted) for-profit organizations:

Biology/Chemistry/ChemE/BioE Professors and For-Profit Organizations
(as of June 2019)

Name Companies Founded Boards of Directors Advisory Boards
Russ Altman 1 0 2
Zhenan Bao 2 2 0
Annelise Barron 0 1 0
Carolyn Bertozzi 4 1 4
Kwabena Boahen 0 1 0
Hongjie Dai 2 0 1
Karl Deisseroth 1 0 1
Scott Delp 6 2 0
Justin Du Bois 1 0 1
Drew Endy 1 0 0
Marcus Feldman 0 0 1
Michael Fischbach 1 0 3
Or Gozani 1 2 0
Craig Heller 1 0 0
Chaitan Khosla 3 1 0
Jan Liphardt 1 0 0
Dmitri Petrov 1 0 0
Jonathan Pritchard 0 0 2
Steven Quake 9 0 1
Mark Schnitzer 2 0 0
James Swartz 3 0 1
Marc Tessier-Lavigne 2 2 1
Paul Wender 1 0 1
Richard Zare 0 0 6

Source: Stanford Sphere research. See the link for more details on methodology.

As the table above shows, professors are usually involved with companies in three distinct ways:

  • Founders are profs whose scientific breakthroughs are made first into a product and subsequently into a company. Unlike the Zuckerberg types, these founders don’t spend all their time running the business—but it’s not unusual for them to hold shares and influence in the organizations powered by their discoveries.
  • Members of the Board of Directors get to run the company on a very high level, be it by selecting CEOs or by shaping business strategy. Serving on this kind of board may not be a full-time occupation, but members do have a legal commitment to shareholders to ensure the company profits—about as interested in the company as a professor can get.
  • Finally, members of an Advisory Board don’t share directors’ power or their responsibilities to shareholders—but having the company’s best interests at heart is still part of their job, and they often receive compensation.

As far as the rules go, there’s nothing wrong with these activities in themselves: Stanford policy states that “service on boards of directors or advisory boards is allowed” for faculty, and professors are free to found companies as long as they comply with certain requirements. But things start getting murkier when professors get financially compensated for those roles—which happens most of the time.

If you’re a student in a biology class, you don’t want a professor with a financial stake in a particular technique to tell you it’s the best on the market—especially in a field with implications for healthcare. And in the words of a professor who wrote to the Sphere, “the last thing I want is for any graduate student or postdoc to discover that they had been tricked into working on some project because I had a financial interest in some problem getting solved.” That’s why faculty must report their financial stakes to a committee in the Dean of Research’s office (DoR), which decides whether financial interests are harmless or whether they affect the content of research—a conflict of interest (COI).

Compared to the 79 financial stakes we listed above, Stanford found only 4 conflicts of interest. (These were not 4 out of 79. Of the four COIs Stanford discovered, only one company had showed up in the Sphere‘s research through public financial databases.) But DoR’s opaque decision-making process makes this assessment difficult to trust. The rules that guide it are hopelessly vague, with bits like “a conflict of interest occurs when… an independent observer might reasonably question whether the individual’s professional actions or decisions are determined by considerations of personal financial gain,” or another line that’s, at best, suspicious: “common sense must prevail in the interpretation of these policies.” And given that DoR’s proceedings are secret, we never get to know whether the committee’s “reasonability” really corresponds to that of an “independent observer.” The result? DoR gets to rule out COIs with no accountability whatsoever.

But even when it comes to conflicts of interest that DoR actually finds, the committee is still far from transparent. Since 2011, federal regulations have required that the university disclose information about the COIs it finds—but Stanford chooses to do so only if it receives a request about a specific faculty member. This means that if someone wanted to keep track of the scale of conflicts of interest in our university, they would need to submit hundreds of forms each month (one for every professor), and wait about a week for them all to be processed. And that’s not all—it takes another manual request, this time to the National Institute of Health, to discover why DoR found a conflict of interest, and how it plans to control its effects on research. (Ironically, these plans’ “key elements” usually come down to little but “transparency.”)

While DoR does its best to minimize its transparency, professors’ own transparency is left entirely up to them—actively disclosing financial interests is merely “encouraged,” rather than mandated, by university rules. The result is a bizarrely diverse set of attitudes among faculty on transparency norms: one professor wrote the Sphere that it would be “MUCH better” if the financial interests he reported to the DoR automatically showed up in his online profile, whereas another judged that “professors in the biosciences do not, that I am aware of, list consulting activities on their… academic web pages, because scholarly academic research is kept and held separate from consulting activities generally.”

Once again, we went after the data—this time, on professors when left to their own devices. And for once, we graded them on their performance. If they listed the boards on which they served in their Stanford profile or public CV, we gave them an A; if they listed them on their LinkedIn or through other means of their own initiative, we gave them a B; if they listed their occupations nowhere of their own initiative, we gave them a C. Finally, if DoR found that a professor had a university-designated conflict of interest and they still chose not to share it, we gave them a D. Minuses were added to grades if the faculty member gave only a partial listing of the boards in which they served. (We did not verify disclosures in scientific articles or conferences.)

Russ Altman A
Zhenan Bao A
Annelise Barron B
Carolyn Bertozzi A-
Kwabena Boahen C
Scott Delp A-
Justin Du Bois A
Marcus Feldman A
Michael Fischbach A
Or Gozani A
Craig Heller B
Chaitan Khosla A-
Jan Liphardt C
Dmitri Petrov D
Jonathan Pritchard A
Steven Quake C
James Swartz C
Marc Tessier-Lavigne  A
Paul Wender D
Richard Zare A

 

Source: Stanford Sphere research. Professors Hongjie Dai, Karl Deisseroth, Drew Endy, Or Gozani, and Mark Schnitzer were not included in the table for now because we could not review whether they had any conflicts of interest in time for publication.

The most generous reading of the above is that Stanford doesn’t take conflicts of interest seriously. If DoR can’t get profs with university-designated COIs to report them on their CVs, how can we expect them to ensure that faculty are warning their students about them? And how can we expect professors to disclose their information if we lack a university culture of transparency? By disclosing the data it has on faculty’s financial interests, DoR could solve both of these issues at once—but of course, it won’t.

This is because DoR’s conflict of interest policy is secretive by design: it’s a shield that gives professors the luxury of trustworthiness while allowing them to hide their financial interests from wider scrutiny. But this is not a luxury that professors get to have. According to university policy itself, “Stanford University is an institution of public trust; faculty must respect that status and conduct their affairs in ways that will not compromise the integrity of the University or that trust” (italics mine). More than that: by virtue of their positions in an institution of public trust, professors themselves are made into public people. As such, they must carry the burden of the public’s scrutiny over affairs the rest of us get to keep to ourselves. To filter knowledge from a person with a financial conflict of interest is a right that belongs to us all. It should not be reserved for a university committee that only meets in secret.

Professors serve a vital public role. It’s time for the university to act like it.

Daniel “Bob” Ferreira

 

The Sphere emailed the Director of DoR’s Conflict of Interest Office and did not receive a response. We also reached out to 15 professors among those listed above, and obtained responses from only three.

***

We can’t find every conflict of interest on our own. Do you have information on professors’ financial interests that we didn’t include? Email dtf [at] stanford.edu if you know about a tie that deserves to be made public.

***

This is part of a broader Sphere initiative to tackle on-campus corruption. Have a tip? Interested in joining the fight? Email jcaddell [at] stanford.edu if you have an idea for our next investigative effort.

 

Image of Clark Center by Jacob Nierenberg.

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