[ C H R O N I C L E ]
Conflicts of interest arise out of an interference between two or more interests, real or supposed, likely to influence a judgement or action. A top civil servant for example, in charge of a bank merger who was previously employed in one of the establishments involved. Or similarly, a judge who engages in repeated and hidden relations with the lawyer of one of the parties whose case he is sitting on. Although it may seem familiar now, the notion of conflict of interest is recent in legal history. If we are to believe the specialists (1), it appeared in the United States in the 1990s and was only recognised in French law at the turn of the millennium.
While it may seem conceivable to incriminate an unscrupulous civil servant for his relationships or a disloyal employee, at first glance it seems more debatable for a research scientist. Why so? Because scientific demonstration is based solely on rigour. It is based on facts and a succession of rational arguments, transparent to all eyes. If, for any reason, scientists falsify the demonstrations (by fabricating or manipulating facts for example), they become guilty of contravening scientific integrity, whether or not there is a conflict of interest. Whether the funding comes from a private company or a State, or both, whether personal gain is obtained from the results of the research, changes nothing about the rectitude of the proof, that everyone should be able to judge independently. In sum, in the field of research, which attempts to push ever further back the boundaries of human ignorance, scientists are not susceptible to conflicts of interest.
It may happen however, that the services of a scientist are called on in his capacity as expert or project reviewer. As an expert, a links with any company risks influencing his conclusions. This would be the case for a physician who, with research or consultancy agreements with pharmaceutical firms, is asked to participate as an expert, in the market launch process of one of these firms’ or their competitors’ drugs. For example, pulmonologist Michel Aubier was charged with omitting to declare that he had been paid by the company Total while acting as an expert on the dangers of air pollution. As a project reviewer, a scientist’s review may be modified by his acquaintances (be they a protégé or on the contrary someone likely to get in their way), or by their militant commitment to one cause or another. In any event, everything possible needs to be done to avoid the disastrous effects of these conflicts of interest.
Sometimes however, the procedures in place cause more harm than the issue they aim to eradicate. Yves Bréchet, member of the CEA’s atomic energy committee, characterized the field of expertise as “a disqualification of experts” because anyone competent risks having conflicts of interest. It is thus perfectly understandable that a doctor expert in a pathology had contacts (research contracts for example) with pharmaceutical firms wishing to trial treatments for that pathology. Were it not the case, we would doubt his/her expertise.
As for the perfectly legitimate desire to get neutral reviews for research projects, this has led to the implementation of costly administrative machines, of doubtful effectiveness, to evaluate research programmes, being envisaged at the French National Research Agency. In conclusion, it is uncertain that transposing the notion of conflict of interest into the field of research is really fruitful. Better to identify, denounce, judge and condemn real cases of scientific corruption!
(1) Joël Moret-Bailly, Les Conflits d'intérêts, LGDJ, 2014.
Artificial intelligence researcher
Jean-Gabriel is a professor of IT at the Pierre-et-Marie-Curie University (Paris 6). He chairs the CNRS ethical committee (Comets).