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Harvard Medical School has created more wiggle room in one of its conflict-of-interest rules, after complaints from professors that the policy was hampering them from turning lab discoveries into treatments that could help people.

The change, announced Nov. 20, affects medical school faculty who are conducting basic science experiments — fundamental research in test tubes and animals, not in human beings. It’s the first change to emerge from a review of the school’s conflict-of-interest rules that began in January.

The ethics rules, put in place in 1990, included a measure barring faculty who own equity in a private company from receiving grants, lab materials, or other contributions from that company. The same prohibition held for faculty with over $30,000 in equity in a publicly traded company.


Until two weeks ago, implementation of that policy was among the strictest in the nation because it did not allow faculty to routinely petition for exceptions, according to Eric Campbell, a Harvard Medical School sociologist who studies these policies. The rule affects not just professors who work directly for the school, but 12,000 faculty across Harvard’s affiliated clinical sites, including five major academic teaching hospitals.

Harvard came under pressure from faculty and some hospital administrators to change that policy amid a growing national debate about whether strict conflict-of-interest policies are holding back medical progress. The debate takes place against the backdrop of a changing medical landscape, where more professors are launching startups because government funding for research is harder to get and large drug companies have moved away from investing in early-stage research.


Now Harvard Medical School Dean Jeffrey Flier has agreed to offer more wiggle room by letting faculty petition the school’s ethics committee for an exception to the rule. If they can show the benefits of the research outweigh the potential risks of conflict — and put in safeguards to manage that potential conflict — they’ll be allowed to accept contributions from a company in which they have equity. 

The move brings Harvard Medical School “in line with what leading organizations in academic medicine have recommended,” including the Association of American Medical Colleges and the Institute of Medicine, said Campbell.

“Nobody wants conflict-of-interest rules to stop basic research if the conflict can be managed,” he said.

The school also lifted the $30,000 cap for publicly traded companies, saying instead that faculty who accept sponsored research from a company cannot own equity amounting to over 1 percent of that company’s value.

Dr. Donald Ingber, who directs Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, called the changes “subtle” but “a move in the right direction.”

“Whenever there’s greater flexibility, it increases the likelihood of greater translation” of discoveries into clinical applications, he said, which is the goal of the Wyss.

“The higher the wall, the more difficult it is to jump over that wall,” he said. “This’ll make it a little bit easier to collaborate.”

Dr. Robert Mayer, the Harvard Medical School professor who chairs the committee that is reexamining the conflict-of-interest rules, said his group recommended this change after reviewing 1,600 faculty surveys, conducting a literature review, comparing policies at peer institutions, and hearing testimony from faculty. The committee is still reviewing another rule related to clinical trials and expects to make final recommendations by April.