Conflict of Interest Policy – Program Participants
 

1. What is a conflict of interest?
 

A conflict of interest (COI) is a situation in which an individual has competing interests or loyalties that could potentially affect their decision-making.

A COI is a situation, not an accusation. Being in a COI is not the same as being corrupt, and pointing out that someone is in a COI is not the same as accusing them of bias or lack of integrity.

A COI, if not dealt with properly, may leave doubt about the objectivity of a decision-making process, or about the integrity of the research project.

2. What is a conflict of interest from a Mitacs Program perspective?
 

As research integrity and academic freedom are cornerstones of Mitacs programs, we must ensure that they are protected. In the context of Mitacs programs, a conflict occurs when a participant also has an interest in the partner organization hosting the project research activities. More specifically, a COI exists when an academic supervisor or intern/postdoctoral fellow, either directly or through a relative:

  • Has any ownership interest in the partner organization;
  • Has any level of influence over the daily operations of the partner organization; or,
  • Enters into a research and/or business contract with a partner organization, in which the participant (i.e., the academic supervisor and/or postdoctoral fellow) or a relative has a financial or other interest.

Being in a conflict of interest does not necessarily bar you from participation in a Mitacs program. Mitacs reviews each situation to see if the conflict can be managed, and how.

3. Is it a conflict if the academic supervisor has ownership in the host organization and/or influence over its daily activities?   
 

Academic supervisors who receive Mitacs funds and who have an ownership position in a partner organization that is sponsoring their research and/or have a position of influence on said organization’s daily operations are in a conflict of interest. It may be difficult to distinguish between academic activities and partner organization activities, and between their contributions as a Mitacs academic supervisor and as a principal in the partner organization.

When such a conflict exists, the conflict mitigation must ensure that there is academic independence and independent partner supervision.

Where there is an ownership or operational relationship between an academic supervisor and the partner organization, Mitacs will request details on the supervisor’s involvement with the organization, evidence that the supervisor’s academic institution is aware of the conflict, and the particulars of the academic institution’s mitigation measures. Based on this information Mitacs will determine if the project can go forward as is, if further mitigation is necessary, or if the project cannot be supported by Mitacs.

4. Is it a conflict if the student/postdoctoral fellow has ownership in the partner organization?
 

Interactions between academic researchers and the non-academic sector are an essential feature of Mitacs and its programs. Mitacs encourages spin-offs and commercialization of research its programs have funded. However, students/postdoctoral fellows who receive Mitacs funds and who have an ownership position in an enterprise that is sponsoring and hosting their research could be considered to be in a conflict of interest. The significant difference between this situation and that of an academic supervisor having an ownership interest is that, in the context of a Mitacs-funded project, the student/postdoctoral fellow is not in a position of authority to make decisions about that project, being under the supervision of the academic and partner organization supervisors. Therefore, although the student/postdoctoral fellow may have competing interests, they are not in a position to act on them.

Outside of the conflict of interest situation described above, cases in which students/postdoctoral fellows have ownership in the partner organization may not be in the spirit and mandate of Mitacs programs – to build collaborations and relationships between academia and the non-academic sector and specifically to provide a novel research experience to interns. Clearly, if the student/postdoctoral fellow has an interest in the organization then such a relationship already exists. In such cases, the student/postdoctoral fellow would be considered ineligible from a Programs perspective, and Mitacs will generally not approve the project. Mitacs may grant exceptions in some cases; each situation is reviewed individually.

An exception to the situations described above is that of intern ownership of the partner organization in the Mitacs Accelerate Entrepreneur initiative. This initiative is different from most Mitacs programs as there is no partner organization supervisor: the student is the owner or part-owner of the partner organization. In the Entrepreneur initiative, student ownership of the partner organization is a core element so the intern cannot be disqualified because of a conflict of interest based on ownership. However, the integrity of the research project must be maintained, so the conflict of interest must still be declared and a review process followed; the mitigation or management of the conflict is different than for Mitacs’ other programs.

5. Is it a conflict if the student/postdoc is (or was) an employee of the partner organization?
 

While it may not fit under a conflict of interest situation, in accordance with the Mitacs Program Guide, we do not allow employees of the partner organizations to participate in Mitacs programs.  Regardless of their degree of responsibility, interns may not be employees at the time they undertake their internship.  This rule is in place to ensure we adhere to the spirit and mandate of the program – to build collaborations and relationships between academia and industry. If an employee undertakes an internship, it would be little more than additional funds to support activity that would likely have occurred anyways. 

The intern may be allowed to participate in a Mitacs program if he/she is an employee but has taken a leave of absence in order to complete his/her thesis or degree. With appropriate documentation of the leave, this is considered to be an acceptable internship environment, provided that no other COI issues further complicate the proposed interaction/project. The project must be research-based and must not encompass the intern’s previous work at the firm. 

Situations in which postdoctoral fellows are or were full-time, permanent employees of the partner organization will generally preclude the postdoctoral fellow holding an internship or fellowship with that organization.

Alone, these are program rules only and will not proceed to COI processing but be referred to Mitacs Programs staff (accelerate@mitacs.ca or elevate@mitacs.ca as applicable) for their evaluation of eligibility.

6. Is it a conflict if a relative has ownership in the partner organization and/or influence over its daily activities?
 

If a program participant, either academic supervisor or student/postdoctoral fellow, is not independent from the partner organization – for example, if a relative has ownership or a position of responsibility in the organization – Mitacs treats this as a COI. Each situation is reviewed so that we can understand the level of influence, which is a factor of the level of ownership/position at the organization, as well as the size of organization. 

7. Who does a program participant discuss a potential conflict of interest with?
 

Individuals unsure as to whether a certain transaction, activity, or relationship constitutes a conflict of interest should discuss it with a Mitacs Business Development Director/Specialist or a Program Director.

If there is a conflict, the applicant in conflict must submit a COI declaration form to accelerate@mitacs.ca or elevate@mitacs.ca (as applicable) prior to submitting a project proposal, and the declaration will go through the review process.

8. How does Mitacs determine the management of a conflict of interest?
 

A formal review process determines conflict mitigation required to participate in a Mitacs program.

Ultimate responsibility for implementation and management of the Conflict of Interest Policy rests with the Mitacs Board of Directors. The Mitacs Governance Committee has been charged with establishing controls to both monitor and manage conflicts, and ensuring that the goals of Mitacs-funded research are not at risk. The Governance Committee has delegated the review of certain types of conflict to the Staff Committee, headed by a member of the Executive Management Team, and to the Mitacs Research Council (MRC). All COI decisions are presented to the Governance Committee and the Board of Directors at their regular meetings.

An individual may request in writing, within 30 days, a review of Mitacs’ decision on a conflict of interest.

In certain circumstances, the Mitacs Board of Directors may arrange for an independent third party, appointed by mutual agreement of Mitacs and the Board of Directors, to act as an intermediary to scrutinize scientific reports and budgetary information of research project(s) in which the individual participating in the Mitacs program is involved. The intermediary would provide an opinion on the overall merit of the review, without divulging specifics of a proprietary nature to other members of Mitacs.

Academic supervisor-related COIs:

Mitacs requires the following information from the academic supervisor:

  • Details on the supervisor’s involvement with the non-academic partner organization;
  • Evidence that the supervisor’s academic institution is aware of the conflict; and
  • A description of the academic institution’s mitigation measures.

When the conflict is considered low, generally Mitacs will not require any mitigation measures beyond those of the academic institution.

When the ownership level or involvement in the company is higher, Mitacs may require measures beyond those imposed by the academic institution, including requesting that the academic institution appoint an independent administrator to be responsible for managing the grant and ensuring the financial, intellectual property, and intern academic matters of the project comply with the academic institution’s policies. The administrator would also be responsible for ensuring the intern is not unduly influenced by the academic or partner organization supervisors and would provide a declaration that they will act in the best interests of the intern participating in the project. (Note that an independent administrator will always be required when there is an academic supervisor COI related to projects under the Entrepreneurship Initiative.)

When the conflict is considered unmanageable by the academic institution, Mitacs will not support the project.

All professor-related conflicts will go to the Mitacs Staff Committee for review and decision. If an exception to the above requirements is requested, the following process will occur:

  • If the exception request is substantially the same as other COIs already adjudicated and for which the decision based on previous cases is clear, Mitacs Staff Committee determines the resolution. In other cases, the COI goes to the MRC, and the Mitacs Staff Committee, in consultation with the MRC, determines the resolution.

Intern/postdoc-related COIs (except Entrepreneurship Initiative):

  • The initial review will be undertaken by Programs, to ensure that the internship meets the Program mandate.  If the internship does not meet this requirement, no further review will be required and the internship will not proceed. If there is no programmatic objection to the internship, the review will proceed based on the following thresholds.
  • Threshold of 10% ownership and participant not involved in day-to-day business: the Mitacs Staff Committee determines the resolution;
  • Threshold > 10% - 20% ownership and/or influence in day-to-day business: When the COI declaration is substantially the same as others already adjudicated and for which the decision based on previous cases is clear, Mitacs Staff Committee determines the resolution. In other cases, the COI goes to the MRC, and the Mitacs Staff Committee, in consultation with the MRC, determine the resolution to the conflict; and
  • Threshold > 20% ownership and/or influence in day-to-day business: When the COI declaration is substantially the same as others already adjudicated and for which the decision based on previous cases is clear, Mitacs Staff Committee determines the resolution. In other cases, the COI goes to MRC for recommendation, and then to Governance Committee for resolution.   

Intern/postdoc-related COIs – Entrepreneurship Initiative:

As the level of student ownership of the partner organization does not determine whether or not an internship can proceed, Mitacs has approved three requirements that must be in place to manage the conflict, and these are reviewed by the Programs team:

  • The academic institution must be informed and agree that they recognize that the conflict is occurring with this particular project;
  • The academic supervisor must acknowledge they are aware of the conflict and agree to help mitigate it through their supervision; and
  • The incubator where the student is working must acknowledge being aware of the conflict and agree to help mitigate it through oversight in the place of an industry supervisor.

Only if the requirements are not met, and an exception is requested, will an additional COI review be required. The additional review is as follows:

  • If the exception request is substantially the same as other COIs already adjudicated and for which the decision based on previous cases is clear, Mitacs Staff Committee determines the resolution. In other cases, the COI goes to the MRC, and the Mitacs Staff Committee, in consultation with the MRC, determines the resolution.

9. What happens when I am in a conflict of interest and have not done the appropriate disclosures?
 

If a program participant is discovered to be in conflict of interest where disclosure and prior approval have not been sought or granted, the Mitacs Board of Directors will require the individual to:

  • Mitigate the conflict immediately to Mitacs’ satisfaction; or
  • Withdraw from the Mitacs program.