Partnership in Research: advancing ethical practices and organizing the conflict of interest

In this interconnected and fast changing world, cooperation in information generation, application, and sharing are considered to be crucial elements for wellbeing and good health, which is ultimately the most important economic asset. Finding the right balance between for-profit investment and ethical engagement in health related research is key for a productive, sustainable, and evolutionary cooperation between corporations and academic institutions and researchers. 

Partnerships between corporations and public health academic institutions and researchers have increased and evolved rapidly throughout the past years. This new dynamic relationship offers interesting opportunities and new ways to advance research and practice in the field of public health. However, researchers and academic institutions are faced with key moral and ethical questions when engaging with for-profit enterprises.

In this context, the Faculty of Health Sciences (FHS) in the American University of Beirut (AUB) organized a meeting entitled "Towards a global research agenda on governance, ethics and conflicts of interest from corporate interactions in public health research, practice and policy" bringing together international researchers, academics, and health professionals with the aim to explore the issue of conflict of interest around corporate engagement with public health research, practice, and policy in order to extend the base of knowledge and action. 

As corporations, enterprises, and even international agencies have a major influence on the research agenda, attendees discussed the attitudes, examples of dangerous trends, and cases of conflict of interest in research. Conflict of interest is one of the major concerns researchers have regarding any cooperation between them and the funders in the public health field. 

The meeting, held from 8 to 10 February 2018 in AUB’s West Hall, outlined a future agenda in research, policy and practice to understand and mitigate against the challenges that emerge when for-profit corporations engage with public health actors. 

Participants coming from all over the world shared lessons learned from relevant work with the aim of building a bridge between a larger global community of researchers, practitioners and funding organizations interested in this topic. They presented about their experience in research on alcohol, tobacco, Non-Communicable Diseases, obesity, pharmaceutical industry, ethics in research, and research for militarization.

In his opening speech President of AUB Dr. Fadlo Khuri stressed the need to start tackling health problems as a key for making a change: “Some might say that addressing problems related to health might take 100 years before we are able to see impact, this should not discourage us, but on the contrary. We should start as soon as possible.”​​

​“Knowledge that can be gained through partnerships with international corporations can be very productive. Scholars and academics are encouraged to partner with these enterprises but we should be careful not to help them justify their unhealthy products,” added President Khuri.

​FHS Dean Iman Nuwayhid described the topics addressed by the meeting as “critical.” “Partnerships with the private sector is needed and has proven to be effective in many cases but evidence is essential in every case,” stressed Dean Nuwayhid. 

Identifying the best practices for preventing and managing conflict of interest and understanding their implementation considerations can help in pushing forward the agenda across different governments and institutions to develop and implement conflict of interest policies. In this context, participants explored the common challenges and the successful practices and guidelines on how to overcome this.

“When it comes to conflict of interest, we need to defend our values and morals, and push towards achieving our research goals as intellectuals and public health experts and practitioners”. 

In his turn, Zee Leung, Senior Program Officer at the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) Food, Environment, and Health program considered that “partnerships between researchers and the private sector should be studied more carefully”, emphasizing that “this private sector includes many players. International corporations, but also small local enterprises”.

“Policy briefs, rapid systematic reviews and scoping reviews around governance, ethics and conflict of interest when it comes to corporate engagement are highly needed,” added Leung.

Over the past three years, FHS; the James P Grant School of Public Health (JPG SPH) of BRAC University, Bangladesh; the School of Public Health and Family Medicine, Division of Public Health Medicine, University of Cape Town (UCT), South Africa; and the Department of Health Services Research and Policy, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), London, UK have jointly implemented an IDRC-supported project entitled “Taking research, practice and sponsorship funds from for-profit corporations: Assessing the attitudes and practices of public health professionals.”

The project was initiated based on the identified potential risks of partnerships between for–profit corporations and public health academic institutions and researchers; and the lack of clear data on the pervasiveness of these partnerships and/or on the attitudes and behaviors within the public health academic community vis-a-vis such engagement. The meeting was held following several workshops and years of data gathering as part of the project.