Smithsonian To Update and Strengthen Its Ethics and Disclosure Policies

June 26, 2015
News Release
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Two reviews of the Smithsonian’s policies governing conflicts of interest surrounding sponsored research and publication have been completed. Distinguished scientist Dr. Rita Colwell conducted an external review of the policies to ensure they meet the highest standards. A Smithsonian task force also reviewed the policies. These reviews were initiated following recent allegations that Smithsonian scientist Wei-Hock (Willie) Soon failed to disclose to journals the funding sources for his climate change research. The reviews, however, focused on overall Smithsonian policies, not the conduct of one researcher.

While both reviews found the Smithsonian’s policies to be generally consistent with academic best practices, they also indicated that the Institution should strengthen its existing policies and update its operating procedures. When the reviews were completed, the Smithsonian committee and Colwell collaborated to reach several joint findings.

“I trust these findings and recommendations will prove useful to the Smithsonian,” Colwell said. “The Smithsonian will be setting the highest standard in this regard.”

The Smithsonian is prepared to take immediate action in response to the findings. The Smithsonian has begun the process of revising existing policies, drafting new procedures, and identifying automated solutions to comply with the following four findings from the reviews:

  • The Smithsonian should review all sponsored awards at the time of proposal for personal conflicts of interests. (Currently, the Smithsonian does not have a uniform process to check for conflict of interest at the proposal submission stage.)
  • The Smithsonian should implement a single set of baseline terms and conditions in sponsored awards related to the Institution’s freedom to publish, confidentiality and intellectual property rights that are consistent with the Institution’s public mission and goal to disseminate knowledge. (Currently, there is no single set of formal baseline terms and conditions.)
  • The Smithsonian should modernize and automate its annual financial disclosure program so that the Institution can include all researchers in the disclosure process regardless of whether they are currently identified as mandatory filers under existing Smithsonian policy. (Currently, not all principal investigators [researchers] are required to file; this change will add an additional 150 researchers to the process.)
  • The Smithsonian should adopt a publication disclosure policy that is consistent with the Institution’s mission to increase and diffuse knowledge. It should require that staff disclose all sources of research funding in connection with any publication written as a member of Smithsonian staff, regardless of a journal’s or publisher’s requirements, and irrespective of whether the staff member deems his or her sponsored research related to the findings set forth in a particular publication. (Currently, the Smithsonian does not require staff to disclose funding sources if it is not required by the publisher.)

“Following the internal and external policy reviews, the Smithsonian is now ready in this new age of scholarly research to lead the way in academic standards for conflict of interest disclosures,” said John Kress, the Smithsonian’s Interim Under Secretary for Science. “We especially appreciate Dr. Colwell’s assessment and suggested revisions of our policies.”

“Now that the reviews are complete, our next step is to implement the recommendations with input from our scholarly staff across the Smithsonian so that the new policies are effective and efficient,” Kress said. 

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