Despite the need for broad-based and generous funding and the right of scientists to reap rewards for their efforts and ingenuity, financial incentives may create conflicts of interest that can undermine and corrupt the ideal of disinterested scientific inquiry. A conflict of interest exists when any professional judgment or activity relating to a primary interest (e.g., intellectual honesty, validity, openness, or objectivity), equivalent to the scientific norms articulated by Robert K. Merton and others, may be influenced by secondary interests (e.g., financial gain, profit, position, or fame). The mere existence of a conflict of interest does not mean that unethical behavior has occurred; the scientist may honor the primary interests and refuse to be influenced by the secondary interests. Conflicts of interest instead signal cases in which the danger of unethical behavior is increased. In some cases the conflicts can be managed by restricting the secondary interests; in more extreme cases ethical outcomes can be assured only if the secondary interests are entirely removed (Thompson; Merton; Cournand).
Conflict of interest may exist at an individual or at an institutional level. For example, one primary interest of a university is to serve the public good. Financial incentives may induce researchers and institutions to behave in ways detrimental to society (Angell). For example, a scientist may forgo research on an important project in favor of another that is more profitable. Comprehensive ethical policies would ideally address both possible levels of conflict, though they require different forms of remedies.
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