Conflict of Interest

COI

The Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA), has the responsibility to ensure public stewardship of funds and those related activities including research, observatory operations, community participation and public education and outreach. The public community should be confident that such activities remain unencumbered by potential conflicts of Interest that might affect the sound judgment of the science staff, administrators, officers and other staff.

Reason for AURA Policy Governing Conflict of Interest

It is critical to the mission and reputation of AURA and its Centers to maintain the public’s trust, that the operations and management, research, outreach and other activities are not compromised, or perceived as biased by financial and business considerations.

This policy was established by AURA to provide an oversight process to manage, reduce or eliminate institutional conflicts of Interest. AURA Policy Governing Conflict of Interest

In addition the AAG Chapter IV.A of the NSF Administration Award Guide requires that each grantee institution employing more than fifty individuals to maintain an appropriate written and enforced policy on conflict of interest.

In conjunction, AURA has also created a policy on Business Ethics Policy indicating written standards of conduct and business ethics guidance for AURA Center procurements.

Together these two policies provide the basis of ensuring that the activities of each AURA Operating Center should be constituted so as to maintain public confidence in AURA as an organization committed to the advancement of astronomical science.

Types of Conflict of Interests

There are two general types of institutional conflicts of interest. First, the Observatory as represented by its leaders may find that its professional judgments with respect to its operational scientific and public obligations may be affected by entrepreneurial and financial aspirations. Second, individuals with supervisory and administrative roles in the Observatory may become involved in situations where their functions are conflicted by, or perceived to be in conflict by, the opportunity for personal gain.

 COI Policy Definitions                     (top)

The Observatory: the AURA Centers and any partnerships, consortiums, affiliate or other organizations that AURA has contractual relationships to do their business administration.

Staff: (Any individuals) holding a paid appointment by AURA or it’s affiliates, at any percentage of time, as defined above, regardless of their source of funding. Especially those individuals who have the ability to influence budgets, committees, programming, review RFP’s, purchase initiation, project direction, reporting of research and decision making opportunities which can commit the Observatory.

Conflict of Interest: A situation in which the operations, research, outreach or other activities of the Observatory may be compromised due to external financial and/or business relationships at a level that may bring financial gain to the Observatory, any of it’s partnerships or individuals covered by this policy. An individual is considered to have a conflict of interest when she/he or a member of family or associate appear to have, the opportunity to influence observatory business operations, administration, outreach or research in ways which could lead to financial gain or enable them to exercise control or significantly influence policy.

Examples of conditions or restrictions that might be imposed to manage, reduce or eliminate conflicts of interest include, but are not limited to:

  1. public disclosure of significant financial interests;

  2. monitoring of research by independent reviewers;

  3. modification of the research plan;

  4. disqualification from participation in the portion of the NSF-funded research that would be affected by significant financial interests;

  5. divestiture of significant financial interests; or

  6. severance of relationships that create conflicts.

If the COI Officer or COI Resolution Committee (CRC) determines that imposing conditions or restrictions would be either ineffective or inequitable, and that the potential negative impacts that may arise from a significant financial interest are outweighed by interests of scientific progress, technology transfer, or the public health and welfare, then the COI Officer or Review committee may allow the research or operation to go forward without imposing such conditions or restrictions.

Family: Family of an individual includes his or her spouse, significant partners, parents, siblings, children or other blood relatives or extended families of those who reside in their household. This also may include cultural family relationships such as “ohana” in Hawaii and “compadres” in Chile.

Associate: An associate includes any trust, organization, or enterprise over which the employee, alone or together with an immediate family member, exercises a controlling interest.

COI Audit File: The COI Officer will be required to keep an annual audit file that contains COI disclosure forms for resolutions of conflict of interest, CRC decisions and documentation for period of 3 years. The file will remain confidential for only audit and agency review.

Business: Any corporation, partnership, sole proprietorship, firm, franchise, association, organization, holding company, Joint Stock Company, receivership, business or real estate trust, or any other nongovernmental legal entity organized for profit, nonprofit, or charitable purposes.

Business Interest: Any individual(s) holding any executive position or membership on a board regardless of compensation.

Conflict of Interest Officer: Is appointed by each AURA Center Director.

Contribution: A donation of assets to the Observatory (AURA). Assets may be in the form of cash, securities, tangible personal property, partnership interests, or pledges for acceptable assets that are assigned to AURA.

COI Resolution Committee (CRC): The committee consists of the following:

  • The Observatory Conflict of Interest Officer

  • The Human Resources Manager

  • The Center Director

  • An Administrative Authorized Representative (AAR) appointed by the Center Director to represent the affiliate organization or committee if needed.

Executive Position: Any position that includes responsibilities for a significant segment of the operation or management of a business.

Financial Interest: (see also “Significant Financial Interest” below) anything of monetary value including, but not limited to:

  1. an interest in a business consisting of any stock, stock option, or similar ownership interest in such business. Interest in business does not include any interest arising solely by reason of investment in such business by a mutual, pension, or other institutional investment fund over which the employee does not exercise control; or

  2. receipt of, or the right or expectation to receive, any income in one or more of the following forms: a) consulting fee, b) honoraria, c) salary, d) allowance, e) forbearance, f) forgiveness, g) interest in real or personal property, h) dividend, i) royalty derived from the licensing of technology or other processes or products, j) rent, k) capital gain, or l) any other form of compensation.

Investigator: The principal investigator, co-investigator or any other individual at the Observatory who is responsible for the design, conduct or reporting of research or educational activities funded or proposed for funding by the NSF or other funding agencies.

Observatory Participation: To be part of the Observatory activity in any capacity, including, but not limited to, serving as the principal investigator, co-investigator, research collaborator, committee member, or provider of direct administrative services or management control. The term does not apply to sub-contractors or individuals who provide primarily technical or advisory support and have no direct access to the data or control over collection or analysis, commitment of funds or influence on operations.

Significant Financial Interest: Anything of monetary value where the value equals or exceeds:

  • an aggregated equity interest in a business representing ownership of five percent (regardless of worth) or a value of $10,000, as determined through reference to public prices or other reasonable measures of fair market value;

  • an aggregated annual income of all types from a business of $10,000 over the next 12 months; or

  • a commitment for future royalties from a business beyond the next 12 months that are expected to be $10,000 in aggregated annual income.

  • This term does not include:

    1. Salary, royalties or other remuneration from the Observatory;

    2. Income from seminars, lectures, or teaching engagements sponsored by public or nonprofit entities;

    3. Income from service on advisory committees or review panels for public or nonprofit entities;

    4. An equity interest that, when aggregated for the investigator and the investigator’s spouse and dependent children, meets both of the following tests: does not exceed $10,000 in value as determined through reference to public prices or other reasonable measures of fair market value, and does not represent more than a 5% ownership interest in any single entity; or

    5. Salary, royalties or other payments that, when aggregated for the investigator and the investigator’s spouse and dependent children, are not expected to exceed $10,000 during the prior twelve month period.

Sponsored Project: “Sponsored project” means research, training, and instructional projects involving funds, materials, or other compensation from outside sources under agreements that contain any of the following:

  1. the agreement binds AURA or an affiliate institution to a line of scholarly or scientific inquiry specified to a substantial level of detail;

  2. a line-item budget is involved; financial reports are required; the award is subject to external audit; unexpended funds must be returned to the sponsor at the conclusion of the project; or

  3. the agreement provides for the disposition of either tangible or intangible properties that may result from the activity.

COI Disclosure for Non-AURA Activities and Financial Interest   (top)

All AURA Employees are required to disclose their non-AURA activities on an annual basis. The Human Resources Department is charged with notifying and certifying that all employees have completed an annual COI Disclosure Form for Non-AURA Activities and Financial Interest. New Employees will be required to complete the form at the time of hire and annually thereafter. Directors, Deputy Directors, Associate Directors, Project Managers and other designated supervisors will be responsible to ensure that their staff will comply with submission of the annual disclosure.

The COI Officer will audit and review submissions and approve management plans for managing or mitigating any apparent conflicts. This may include, but is not limited to; a modification to the proposed research plan, monitoring of research by independent reviewers, severance of a relationship that creates the conflict or public disclosure of significant financial interests.

It is the responsibility of the observatory staff to update their forms during the year in the event new possible conflicts arise. Such disclosures are to be made electronically and reviewed and approved by the COI Officer. In addition, the COI Officer will monitor management plans, including requiring employees to provide annual reports when required.

All forms, including annual update submissions and reports will kept on record in electronic form and considered to be confidential. Access to forms will be limited to the Center Director, the COI Officer and the NOAO Human Resources designee. Each staff member will have a login/password and will be able to access their individual submissions for review or to update.

From time to time specific Disclosure Statements for special committees, procurements or other sponsored projects may be developed for the prevention and or disclosure of specific conflicts of interests related to the special program. Alternative Disclosure Statements will be developed by the Office of Sponsored Projects and approved by the COI and, the CRC if necessary, before use.

Review of Disclosure Forms for Possible Conflicts of Interests   (top)

If necessary, the COI Officer will schedule a review by the COI Resolution Committee (CRC) within 30 days after submission to resolve any non-submission, non-compliance or reported conflicts resulting from the annual disclosure process that cannot be successfully managed or mitigated. COI disclosure forms and copies of all actions taken to resolve conflicts of interests for threes years beyond termination or completion of the grant to which they relate, or until the resolution of any NSF action involving those records which ever is longer.

All conflict resolutions that are managed or mitigated should be documented and reported annually to the Center Director by the COI Officer. In the case of committees, documentation should appear in the meeting minutes and/or final reports. In any case the COI Officer or designee must concur with the resolution prior to continuing of the committee meeting, RFP review etc.

Reporting of Non-Compliance  

All allegations whether the conflict is perceived or real must be documented in writing and reported to the COI Officer. Allegations shall be treated as confidential so to protect all persons involved. If the allegation includes the COI Officer then it must be reported to the Center Director who will review for merit and recommend a COI Resolution Committee to review.

Resolution of Conflicts   (top)

The Center COI Officer shall provide the individual subject to the allegation with a copy of the alleged charge. If after a preliminary review, the Center COI Officer determines that there is a potential violation then it shall be referred to the COI Resolution Committee (CRC). The individual subject to the allegation shall have an opportunity to present materials for the CRC to review.

If the CRC finds no violation, it shall so inform the employee in writing, and provide a copy of the finding to the COI Audit File.

If the CRC finds non-compliance it shall make a written finding including any recommendation(s) for sanction(s) and send it to the employee, COI Officer and a copy placed in the employee personnel file.

The employee may appeal the decision of the Conflict Resolution Committee to the AURA Vice President for Administration for final determination.

Sanctions for Non-Compliance   (top)

Definition of non-compliance includes failure to:

  1. Comply with the AURA Policy Governing Conflict of Interest or the AURA Business Ethics Policy.

  2. Report accurately on the designated disclosure form

  3. Comply with decisions under the Policy.

The CRC may recommend one or more of the following disciplinary and/or administrative actions:

  1. Reprimands

  2. Fines

  3. Probation

  4. Suspension

  5. Freezing of research funds

  6. Withholding of payment owed under a procurement contract relating to the conflict

  7. Legal action to rescind AURA contracts entered into in violation of this COI policy or federal law

  8. Legal action to recover the amount of financial benefit received by an employee as a result of his or her violation of this policy

  9. Disqualification from an award, committee, project and/or a contract selection

  10. Termination

Procedures for imposing sanctions and the sanctions used shall be governed by existing AURA and other AURA Center Policies including those regarding grievances and/or termination.

If the conflict of interest has not been satisfactorily managed, AURA will notify the funding agency in writing as required.

Any penalties that may be imposed by an external funding agency shall be deemed separate from any imposed by AURA.

Conflict of Interest FAQs   (top)

  1. When do I submit my annual COI Disclosure form for Non-AURA Activities and Financial Interest?

    When HR announces the dates each year for submission

  2. Where do I find the form for disclosure?

    The form can be found in the AURA web timesheet system  website at: https://cas.aura-astronomy.org/WTS.  Enter your employee ID and reqless/timesheet password at the login, select the COI menu item and Complete New COI form.

  3. What if I determine that I have a new possible conflict of interest?

    You should consult with your Center COI Officer or Human Resources to determine if it is reportable. If yes, then you should immediately submit a new form electronically.

  4. If any of my immediate family, as defined in the policy, works for AURA, am I required to make a disclosure on the form?

    Yes

  5. Does disclosure jeopardize their employment?

    No - disclosure is important to manage any possible appearance of a conflict of interest so not to jeopardize their employment.

  6. Does disclosure of any of my possible conflicts of interest jeopardize my employment?

    No, not as long as you disclose the possible conflict prior to engaging in any activity regarding your position at AURA. Non-disclosure of possible conflicts of interest could possibly jeopardize your employment if not managed or mitigated prior to engaging in the activity.

  7. I am a member of a board of directors for a local company. Must I disclose my membership on the form?

    You need to disclose if; 1) it is an organization for which AURA does business 2) in your current AURA position you would have some decision making or purchasing authority with regards to the organization in question, 3) you have an ownership interest, receiving a salary or other monetary support.

  8. What happens to the information I supply on the COI Disclosure Form?

    The information remains in a secure database for which access is limited to the Human Resources designee for your personnel file, the COI Officer and the Center Director. You may also access your personal submission via your employee number and your unique password.

  9. Is disclosure always a possible conflict of interest?

    No. Your center COI Officer will review your disclosure to determine if it has the appearance of or is a significant conflict of interest. If it is significant than a management plan will need to be implemented in order to eliminate or mitigate the possible conflict.

  10. What if I suspect that another employee has a conflict of interest and has not reported it?

    Any suspected non-compliance should be addressed to your supervisor. However, if you are uncomfortable with discussing this with your supervisor then it should be reported to your COI Officer.

  11. What if I know of a specific violation of a COI and have evidence of such?

    Specific allegations should be submitted in writing with some form of documented evidence to the COI Officer. All submissions are held in confidentiality to protect all persons involved. The COI Officer will review and convene a COI Resolution Committee if necessary to resolve the issue.

  12. What password should I use to access my form?

    Your reqless/timesheet password is the one you should use when submitting or accessing your form.