SENATE MATTERS: On conflicts and foreign influence


The University is deploying a new electronic system to support the reporting of conflicts of interest. The presence or appearance of conflicts of interest can at best weaken the University’s reputation for integrity and objectivity and at worst lead to tangible harm in the real world outside the University.

This position may seem stark, after all in the current higher education environment, conflicts of interest are not regarded as non-starters but as a fact of life that can be managed with an appropriate plan. And while that is practically true, we must acknowledge that all such plans are imperfect, a fact that outside observers assume a priori.

Still, by openly disclosing and addressing conflicts of interest, those same observers should recognize that fundamentally our institution is motivated by integrity, objectivity and a culture of constructive self-evaluation. Acknowledging that much of this process is required by law, our diligence and cooperation in its execution still says something important.

The new electronic system is being deployed against the backdrop of increasing attention to conflicts of interest in research institutions receiving federal funding, one theme of which has been foreign influence. Foreign influence is currently a nebulous concept. At its heart are the interest that foreign governments have in obtaining strategic advantages over the United States and the means by which this interest is pursued: Exerting some level of control over domestic research institutions, whether by recruiting their personnel or acquiring their intellectual property.

A full consideration of foreign influence, as you might expect, exceeds the scope of our purview at the University, and really falls on the federal government, whose job it is to define and defend the national interest. Instead, our responsibility is to provide sufficient documentation of our relationships with foreign entities to allow the government to evaluate the ultimate risk associated with those relationships.

The urgency and seriousness of this matter is exemplified by recent news. And while it is very unlikely that anyone at Pitt has concerns that rise to the extremity of that case, our best defense against our work being misinterpreted as complicity in what, again, is a nebulous but important concept outside the scope of our day-to-day purview (i.e. national security), is diligent, open disclosure. In theory, if we have nothing to hide, we should have nothing to fear in disclosing everything.

In practice, life is not so simple. We know that the concept of foreign influence is somewhat nebulous. We know that some terms, like “talent program,” have not had a formal definition, although we also know that they represent a threat. Our faculty, who are disclosing their conflicts of interest diligently, are now doing so with the knowledge that what they are disclosing is being interpreted in a new space, with repercussions that may include public disgrace and prison time.

We know that much of the interest in foreign influence focuses on a single country and so disproportionally invites scrutiny on our colleagues who happen to be from that country. None of this changes our obligation to comply with the University’s conflict of interest policy, nor the University’s obligation to comply with federal regulations. However, it does present unique circumstances in which the relationship between the faculty and the administration needs to be especially supportive and cooperative.

What our faculty need to know in times like this is that our diligence in disclosing will be matched by institutional support should we become swept up in the rapidly evolving concerns over foreign influence.

Senate Vice President David Salcido is a research assistant professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine in the School of Medicine.