Conflicts of interest undermining confidence in Norway

Publiceret Juli 2003

The man called in by Norges Forskningsråd to restore confidence in its system of evaluating grant applications in the wake of the Marintek scandal has warned of widespread disillusionment prompted by the potential for conflicts of interest in the peer review process.

The Research Council of Norway appointed Eivind Smith, a law professor at Oslo University, to head up a committee looking at reforms to ensure impartiality after widespread media criticism of a recent case in which employees connected to the marine technology firm Marintek sat on a programme committee that awarded grants to projects involving the firm.

"There is a risk that anxiety will spread among researchers," says Smith. "They have been dissatisfied with issues like information about the application process and the treatment of the applications."

The problem for Norges Forskningsråd is that there are not enough people for programme boards or expert panels in Norway. "The fact that most of these people know each other makes it harder. This is always a problem when you want to combine impartiality with competence."

His committee will meet in August and the report should be ready before the end of this year. Meanwhile he says there is a risk that the research community could suffer a backlash from the public if it does not put its house in order. "The money coming from the research council is very important to the research community. If there are a lot of issues that are not being dealt with in the right way, confidence in the research world will be harmed."

In May, the MAROFF programme board handling applications for maritime research was found guilty of partiality by an NF committee after complaints about funding awarded to Marintek. Marintek participated in 16 of 21 projects allocated funding in December 2000 and 5 of 7 funded in December 2002. Senior employees of Marintek or companies holding shares in the company sat on the programme board in both cases, although only in the later round did the employees participate directly in the decision to fund Marintek. There is no suggestion that Marintek or its employees acted improperly.

The finding was followed by a debate in the Norwegian newspapers. The administrative general director of Norges Forskningsråd, Christian Hambro, condeded the incident was embarrassing and established Smith's committee to evaluate the existing regulations for impartiality in the application process. It will look at the legitimacy of the evaluation process, which could for example be affected by a lack of transparency about application criteria, financial consequences of new regulations and draw on experience from other countries.

Meanwhile the council has received thousands of new applications in the run up to its most recent deadline on 15 June. "The report from the committee won't be ready until the end of the year so in the meantime we have a bunch of alternative measures," explains Svein Erik Høst, assisting director general at Norges Forskningsråd.

Høst fears the evaluation process might take a bit longer than usual."We have to practice temporary regulations while we are waiting for the report, however these regulations might not be very time efficient," he says.

Temporary rules include:

  • substitutes will replace members of programme boards that could face a conflict of interest;
  • in the case of the programme board being a able to make a thematic division between different fields, the board could be divided to avoid partiality. In this case, funding for the programme needs to be divided at the outset;
  • when too many members of the board face a conflict, decisions could be referred up to the division board;
  • all applicants to the 15 June deadline to be sent a list of board members and invited to point out conflicts.

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