New prescription drugs and medical procedures become available only after they’ve passed through a battery of tests in the lab, in peer-reviewed academic journals and in governmental review.
Potential conflicts of interest — such as when the leading investigator on an experimental treatment stands to profit from its widespread adoption — can erode the quality of that process, potentially putting public health at risk. As a safeguard, researchers who accept grant money from the federal government must disclose such potential conflicts to the National Institutes of Health.
At Illinois’ leading centers for medical research, faculty members have their share of these potential conflicts. That is according to “Dollars for Profs,” a new database that ProPublica published in December that lets you look at NIH conflict forms, along with other economic disclosures that we obtained from public universities through open records requests. The app, built by ProPublica news apps editor Sisi Wei, revealed thousands of cases where academic researchers around the country derived a significant economic benefit from their scientific work.
In Illinois, researchers at Northwestern University, the University of Chicago, the University of Illinois and other institutions disclosed hundreds of potential conflicts worth a total of at least $4 million in the form of patents, corporate shares, private consulting fees and other financial benefits tied to their work. Two researchers hit the NIH’s highest threshold for scrutiny, each disclosing a potential conflict worth at least $600,000. The size of those conflicts might be higher, as most disclosures don’t specify their dollar value, according to ProPublica reporters David Armstrong and Annie Waldman.
The app is useful for Illinois residents in particular, even those not interested in academic ethics. That’s because state law here requires all public employees with supervisory responsibilities, including faculty and administrators, to disclose any significant outside income or assets to the secretary of state. People who work at private universities are exempt from the rule. From 2016 through 2018, public university employees in Illinois filed disclosures detailing more than 12,000 outside financial relationships, giving people here more information than in any other state in our database.
ProPublica took these documents, many of which were filled out by hand and not easily searchable, and hired freelance workers to enter them into the app. The resulting file — a merger of state-level disclosures and federal conflicts of interest — is unique.
As the data reporter for ProPublica Illinois, I had to dig in.
To be clear, neither Illinois’ disclosures nor the NIH’s reported conflicts necessarily point to a violation of the law or of professional standards — only to relationships that may warrant scrutiny. When I leafed through the state records, I was often struck by their vanilla nature. University staffers filed paperwork on retirement plans, real estate ownership and, in one instance, a cash gift from their parents.
But then I started to consider how time-consuming these reported sidelines must be; a number of them amounted practically to second careers. A former chief of campus police described owning dozens of apartment units. Two administrators responsible for student counseling each ran their own private psychology practices. One university registrar was the owner of a company that builds assisted living facilities.
The disclosures also suggested to me that some high-level employees at cash-strapped public universities are putting in extra hours to make ends meet. At Western Illinois University, where 132 people were laid off last March, employees reported various forms of supplemental income. They served in city and county government. They worked in local public schools and taught dance and music lessons. They consulted for the University of Iowa.
The records are simultaneously vague and quite intimate. But I believe they reveal something important about how higher education works in our state.
If you have something to share about conflicts of interest in academic research in Illinois, I encourage you to fill out this form. If you want to talk about financial disclosures at Illinois public universities, I’d like to hear from you. Please contact me at [email protected] or 708-967-5724.