Campbell EG, Louis KS, Blumenthal D. Looking a Gift Horse in the MouthCorporate Gifts Supporting Life Sciences Research. JAMA. 1998;279(13):995-999. doi:10.1001/jama.279.13.995
From the Health Policy Research and Development Unit, Division of General Internal Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital and Partners Healthcare System, Inc, Boston (Drs Campbell and Blumenthal); the Departments of Medicine (Drs Campbell and Blumenthal) and Health Care Policy (Dr Blumenthal), Harvard Medical School, Boston; and the College of Education and Human Development, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis (Dr Louis).
Context.— Throughout the last decade a number of studies have been conducted to
examine academic-industry research relationships. However, to our knowledge,
no studies to date have empirically examined academic scientists' experience
with research-related gifts from companies.
Objective.— To examine the frequency, importance, and potential implications of
research-related gifts from companies to academic life scientists.
Design.— A mailed survey conducted in 1994 and 1995 of 3394 faculty who conduct
life science research at the 50 universities that received the most research
funding from the National Institutes of Health in 1993.
Setting.— Research-intensive universities.
Participants.— A total of 2167 of the 3394 faculty responded to the survey (response
Main Outcome Measures.— The percentage of faculty who received a research-related gift from
a company in the last 3 years, the perceived importance of gifts to respondents'
research, and what, if anything, the recipient thought the donor(s) expected
in return for the gift.
Results.— Forty-three percent of respondents received a research-related gift
in the last 3 years independent of a grant or contract. The most frequently
received gifts were biomaterials (24%), discretionary funds (15%), research
equipment and trips to meetings (11% each), support for students (9%), and
other research-related gifts (3%). Of those who received a gift, 66% reported
the gift was important to their research. More than half of the recipients
reported that donors expected the following in return for the gift: acknowledgment
in publications (63%), that the gift not be passed on to a third party (60%),
and that the gift be used only for the agreed-on purposes (59%). A total of
32% of recipients reported that the donor wanted prepublication review of
any articles or reports stemming from the use of the gift, 30% indicated the
company expected testing of their products, and 19% indicated that a donor
expected ownership of all patentable results from the research in which a
gift was used. However, what recipients thought donors expected differed by
the type of gift received.
Conclusions.— Research-related gifts are a common and important form of research support
for academic life scientists. However, recipients frequently think that donors
place restrictions and expect returns that may be problematic for recipients
as well as institutions.
THROUGHOUT THE LAST decade there have been a number of studies of academic-industry
research relationships (AIRRs) that have focused on corporate support of research
in the form of grants or contracts.1- 5
However, these studies have not examined a less formal method of resource
exchange between companies and academic scientists—research-related
gifts. These gifts can be in the form of discretionary funds, biomaterials,
support for students, research equipment, or trips to professional meetings.6- 8
Unlike other AIRRs, gifts are rarely subjected to significant oversight
by the university. This is partly because gifts are given to individuals without
an institutionally negotiated research grant or contract. In addition, because
gifts are believed to be given with innocuous restrictions, many recipients
assume they do not require significant university oversight.
Nevertheless, anecdotal evidence suggests that research-related gifts
may come with problematic restrictions and expectations that may justify more
active university management of these relationships. For example, accepting
gifts may obligate recipients to keep results of their research confidential
or provide donors with prepublication review that may significantly delay
publication. In other cases donors may expect recipients to turn over all
ownership rights of patentable results that arise from use of a gift.7,9
Because no systematic data have been collected to address this issue,
the extent, characteristics, and implications of these exchanges have been
difficult to judge. In this article we begin to explore these issues by examining
the following questions: (1) How prevalent in major universities are research-related
gifts? (2) How important are these gifts to faculty members' research? (3)
What characteristics exemplify faculty who are likely to receive research-related
gifts? (4) What, if anything, do donors expect in return for a research gift?
Answers to these questions will inform university policymakers regarding
the extent and potential consequences of gift relationships for faculty and
The data used in this study were derived from a survey of a stratified,
random sample of 4000 life science faculty conducted between October 1994
and April 1995. This sample was selected by identifying the 50 universities
that received the most research funding from the National Institutes of Health
in 1993. Then, using medical school catalogs and Peterson's
Guide to Graduate Programs in the Biological and Agricultural Sciences,10 we identified all life science departments and graduate
programs at these institutions. Departments were classified as "clinical"
or "nonclinical" depending on whether their names referred to a clinical discipline
(eg, anesthesiology, medicine, or surgery) or a nonclinical discipline (eg,
biochemistry, molecular biology, genetics, or chemistry). From each institution,
we randomly selected 1 department of medicine (internal medicine or other
medicine subspecialties), 1 additional clinical department (eg, surgery, anesthesiology,
or pathology), and 2 nonclinical departments. Departments of medicine, internal
medicine, and medicine subspecialties were oversampled with respect to the
nonmedicine specialties (surgery, pathology, etc) because they often receive
the majority of extramural research funds at academic health centers.11
After identifying members of the selected departments, we constructed
our mailing sample so that half was drawn from clinical departments and half
from nonclinical departments. To avoid including individuals who were not
truly functioning as faculty (eg, pure clinicians, residents, fellows, and
hospital staff), we included only those clinical faculty who had published
at least 1 article listed in the National Library of Medicine's MEDLINE database
in the 5 years preceding the study. We also included all faculty who were
identified by the National Center for Human Genome Research as recipients
of funding from the Human Genome Project (HGP).1
This process yielded a final sample of 1871 clinical faculty, 1871 nonclinical
faculty, and 258 HGP recipients.
The survey instrument was a modified version of a questionnaire administered
in 1985 to 1238 faculty concerning their relationships with industry.2 The survey was conducted by mail and administered
by the Center for Survey Research at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.
Of the 4000 faculty in our mailing sample, 606 were ineligible because they
were duplicate listings, were deceased or retired, held no faculty appointment
at the sampled university, or could not be located. To determine how respondents
differed from nonrespondents, the survey firm conducted a brief follow-up
telephone survey of 124 nonrespondents. We asked nonrespondents about their
academic rank and whether they had any extramural research funding. Nonrespondents
were significantly more likely to have nontenure track or junior appointments
(eg, lecturer, instructor), and they were significantly less likely to have
any extramural research support. Of the remaining eligible 3394 faculty, 927
(63%) of the clinical faculty, 1125 (67%) of the nonclinical faculty, and
115 (51%) of the recipients of HGP funding returned completed questionnaires,
yielding a total of 2167 completed surveys and an overall response rate of
64% after 3 survey mailings.
Gift Variables. In order to measure the frequency and importance of research-related
gifts we asked faculty, "In the last 3 years have you received any of the
following gifts (independent of a research grant or contract) from industry
to support your research? (Check all that apply.)" The response categories
were "equipment," "biomaterials (reagents, clones, antibodies, tissues, cell
lines, etc)," "discretionary funds," "support for students," "trips to professional
meetings," "other (please describe)," and "none of the above." We then asked,
"How important were these gifts to the progress of your research?" The response
categories were "essential," "very important," "important," "not very important,"
and "not at all important."
To measure the extent and nature of restrictions and expectations of
return associated with gifts we asked, "Do you think the company (or companies)
expected any of the following in return for the gift(s)? (Check yes or no
for each.)" The follow-up statements were as follows: "use only for the agreed-on
purposes," "acknowledgment in publications," "prepublication review of articles
or reports," "coauthorship on papers," "the gift not be used for commercial
applications," "the gift not be used for applications that compete with company
products," "the gift not be passed on to third parties," "ownership of all
patentable results of the gift," "a future consulting relationship between
you and the company," "general access to faculty and graduate students," "recruitment
of graduate students," "evaluation testing of company products," "training
of company employees," and "other (please explain)." It is important to note
that this item measured what recipients thought companies
expected in return for a gift, not necessarily what requirements they actually
Classifying Faculty by Research Type. Since membership in a clinical or nonclinical department may not fully
predict whether faculty conduct clinical or nonclinical research, we classified
faculty based on their responses to 2 survey items: "In the last 3 years,
has any of your university research consisted of clinical trials of drugs,
devices, or other diagnostic or therapeutic technologies?" and "In the last
3 years, has any of your university research, other than clinical trials,
required approval of a human subjects committee?" Those faculty who responded
affirmatively to either question were classified as clinical researchers.
Faculty who indicated that they did not conduct any of these types of research
within the last 3 years were classified as preclinical researchers.
In addition to tabulating responses, we used simple and multiple regression
analysis to test differences in means. Differences in simple proportions were
tested using χ2 analysis. Differences in proportions involving
multiple variables were tested using logistic regression analysis.
We conducted several analyses to distinguish the effects of receiving
gifts of different types. For clarity, these analyses involve only faculty
who received a single type of gift (eg, biomaterials alone), since it would
be impossible to relate a restriction or expectation of return to a particular
class of gift where faculty received more than 1 type.
Table 1 shows that in the
last 3 years, 43% of respondents (920 faculty) received a gift from industry
(independent of a grant or contract) to support their research. The most frequently
received type of gift was biomaterials (24% of respondents), followed by discretionary
funds (15%), equipment and trips to professional meetings (11% each), support
for students (9%), and other (3%).
Among the 920 gift recipients, 459 (49.9%) received a single type of
gift and 461 (51.1%) received more than 1 type of gift. Of those who received
a single type of gift, 64 (14%) received only equipment, 252 (55%) received
only biomaterials, 77 (17%) received only discretionary funds, and 66 (14%)
received only trips. No respondents reported receiving support for students
or other gifts alone.
Although not shown in Table 1,
we found no significant difference in the percentage of faculty in each subsample
who received a research-related gift. Forty-four percent of faculty in clinical
departments received a gift compared with 42% of faculty in nonclinical departments
and 47% of recipients of HGP funding (P=.42).
Males were significantly more likely than females to receive an industrial
gift (45% vs 35%, P<.001). Also, senior faculty
were more likely to receive gifts than junior faculty. Forty-eight percent
of full professors received a gift compared with 41% of associate professors,
38% of assistant professors, and 29% of other faculty (P<.001). Half of the clinical researchers received a research-related
gift compared with 36% of the preclinical researchers (P<.001). Also, faculty who had research grants and contracts from
industry were more likely to receive research-related gifts than those without
grants or contracts (70% vs 33%, P<.001).
In terms of the perceived importance of these gifts to respondents'
research, 13% of recipients reported that gifts from industry were "essential,"
22% reported "very important," 31% reported "important," 25% reported "not
very important," and 9% reported that the gifts were "not at all important"
to the progress of their research. Gifts were perceived as significantly more
important by preclinical researchers than clinical researchers. Seventy-one
percent of preclinical researchers reported gifts were "important," "very
important," or "essential" to their research compared with 64% of clinical
The importance of gifts varied by type of gift received (Figure 1). Twenty-four percent of those who received only trips
rated them as "essential," "very important," or "important" to the progress
of their research. However, 75% of those who received only biomaterials, 66%
of those who received only discretionary funds, and 67% of those who received
only research equipment rated these gifts as "essential," "very important,"
or "important" to the progress of their research (P<.001).
On all of the dimensions measured, faculty who received gifts were significantly
more productive than nonrecipients (Table
2). Faculty who received research-related gifts published significantly
more articles in refereed journals in the last 3 years, had significantly
more hours of student contact, and engaged in significantly more service activities
than faculty who did not receive research-related gifts. These results remained
even when controlling for differences due to the effects of sex, academic
rank, total research funding, clinical research, and whether the respondent
had any research grants or contracts from industry. There were no significant
differences in the number of publications, the number of hours of student
contact, or the number of service roles by type of gift received (results
Table 3 shows the commercial
outcomes of research ranging from the most preliminary (applying for a patent)
to the most commercially advanced (such as having a product on the market
or a start-up company). On all measures, faculty who received research-related
gifts were significantly more commercially productive than nonrecipients.
These results remained when controlling for the effects of sex, academic rank,
total research funding, type of researcher (clinical vs preclinical), whether
respondents had any research grants or contracts from industry, the number
of publications in peer-reviewed journals in the last 3 years, the number
of hours of student contact, and the number of service roles faculty held
within their university or discipline.
Table 3 also shows the measures
of commercial productivity broken down by the type of gift received. The only
measure of commercial productivity that differed significantly by type of
gift was whether faculty reported having a product under review. Of those
who received only biomaterials, 8% reported having a product under review
compared with 11% of those who received only equipment, 16% of those who received
only discretionary funds, and 24% of those who received only trips to professional
More than half of all recipients thought that donors expected acknowledgment
in publications (63%), that the gift not be passed on to a third party (60%),
or that the gift be used only for the agreed-on purposes (59%). Forty-five
percent thought that donors expected that the gift not be used for any commercial
application. Approximately one third thought donors expected prepublication
review of articles or reports (32%), evaluation or testing of company products
(30%), or that the gift not be used for commercial applications that compete
with company products (29%). Twenty percent of recipients thought that donors
expected a future consulting relationship, and 19% thought the company wanted
ownership of all patentable research results stemming from use of the gift.
However, the restrictions and expectations of returns differed by the
type of gift received (Table 4).
Among those who received only equipment, the most frequently reported restrictions
and expectations of returns were acknowledgment in publications (60%), evaluation
and testing of company products (49%), and that the equipment not be passed
on to a third party (40%). Among those who received only biomaterials, more
than three fourths thought that the company expected that the biomaterial
not be passed on to a third party (82%), that it not be used for commercial
application (81%), that it be used only for the agreed-on purposes (78%),
and that the company be acknowledged in publications (79%). Other frequent
restrictions and expectations of returns recipients thought were associated
with gifts of biomaterials were that the biomaterial not be used for applications
that compete with company products (44%), that the firm receive prepublication
review of articles or reports (40%), and that the company have ownership of
all patentable results from the donated biomaterial (32%). Among those who
received discretionary funds, 41% believed that the company expected that
the money be used for the agreed-on purpose, 39% that the company be acknowledged
in publications, and 35% that the funds not be passed on to a third party.
For those faculty who received only trips to meetings, the most frequently
reported restrictions and expectations of returns were that the trips be used
for the agreed-on purpose (50%) and that the trip not be taken by a third
Corporate gifts are a common source of research-related resources for
life scientists. Almost half of all life scientists surveyed (43%) received
a gift from a company (independent of a research grant or contract), suggesting
that industrial philanthropic behavior may influence a large number of life
scientists. The extent of this influence may be considerable given that 66%
of all recipients reported that gifts were either "important," "very important,"
or "essential" to the progress of their research. However, trips to professional
meetings were perceived as less important than other types of research-related
gifts. Also, it appears that gifts may be most influential among those faculty
who conduct preclinical research.
The data presented herein suggest that gifts from industry are related
to high levels of academic and commercial activities. There are several possible
explanations for this finding. It may be that firms selectively provide gifts
to faculty who are highly academically and commercially productive prior to
receiving a gift. However, gifts may also enhance academic and commercial
productivity by providing resources or exposing recipients to new perspectives
on their research. Also, it may be that more commercially inclined or entrepreneurial
faculty are more likely to solicit gifts from companies. Unfortunately, the
design of the study does not allow us to examine these issues.
Our data suggest that corporate gifts may be associated with a variety
of restrictions and expectations of returns. Some may be innocuous and noncontroversial.
Others, however, are more problematic. Innocuous and legitimate restrictions
include expecting that the gift be used for the agreed-on purpose, that it
not be used for commercial applications or applications that compete with
the company's products, and that the donor be acknowledged in publications
stemming from use of the gift.
However, other restrictions that may be perfectly legitimate from a
donor's perspective may create ethical dilemmas for recipients. Our data suggest
that this is especially true of restrictions on biomaterials. While it is
accepted practice for academic scientists to seek access to reagents from
the acknowledged source, such a restriction may be problematic to the extent
that a firm refuses to give biomaterials to other researchers interested in
replicating or extending the author's research or prohibits authors from depositing
it in a biomaterial bank as required by several leading journals.
Restrictions regarding a period of prepublication review present similar
issues. For firms, prepublication review is a legitimate way to provide feedback
on new or improved uses of a firm's biomaterial and at the same time necessary
to protect its lead over competitors. As a result, academic scientists may
experience delays in publication, which may be detrimental to the overall
progress of research, especially in rapidly developing fields. The extent
to which a period of prepublication review is problematic depends primarily
on the length of time that results are withheld from the academic community.
This finding is certainly cause for some concern, given that a recent study
found that delays of more than 6 months were associated with industrial support
of research12 and that 70% of all gift recipients
had received research funding from industry.
Our data also indicate that accepting gifts that are encumbered with
restrictions regarding the ownership of patentable materials may place recipients
at odds with university policies regarding intellectual property ownership.
For example, we found that 32% of those who received only biomaterials thought
that the donor expected ownership of all patentable results stemming from
use of the gift. By accepting a gift with this restriction, without an institutionally
negotiated grant or contract, faculty may be knowingly or unknowingly violating
the technology transfer policies of their university.
Finally, our data suggest that industry, faculty, or both may be using
the gift mechanism as a way to bypass institutional administrative structures
designed to manage AIRRs. This may be most applicable to the 15% of respondents
who received discretionary funds to support their research. By receiving money
earmarked to support research in the form of a gift, rather than as an institutionally
negotiated research grant or contract, faculty essentially fail to reimburse
their university for overhead expenses, which is also likely to violate existing
Problematic Restrictions and Expectations of Returns Although there are no universally accepted rules defining a problematic
restriction or expectation of return, this research suggests a set of general
guidelines concerning corporate gifts. First, faculty should become familiar,
if they are not already, with their institutional policies that govern gifts
vs grants and contracts. Second, if existing policiesregarding gifts are inadequate,
academic institutions should develop through faculty new or revised policies
that simultaneously encourage the sharing of resources and timely dissemination
of results to the academic community and at the same time protect the legitimate
interests of donors. Third, faculty should not accept any resources from a
firm that expects ownership of intellectual property without an institutionally
negotiated research grant or contract. Fourth, faculty bear the primary responsibility
to avoid using the gift mechanism as a means to bypass existing institutional
policies and administrative structures for exchanges that are more appropriately
managed under the auspices of a research grant or contract.
University Regulation of Gift Relationships. Based on the data presented herein, prohibiting or heavily regulating
the acceptance of direct gifts by faculty members to support their research
is not warranted. Such steps may deprive researchers of resources that clearly
play an important role in life sciences research and are likely to be beneficial
to the advancement of scientific knowledge and its applications. However,
the data do suggest that universities need to be aware of research-related
gifts and monitor specific cases where expectations of return clearly pose
problems for the recipient or the institution.
This study has several limitations that must be considered. First, we
did not attempt to verify the accuracy of recipients' perceptions of the restrictions
or expectations of return associated with research-related gifts, nor did
we measure whether faculty honored donors' wishes. We also have no way of
knowing if or to what extent recipients' perceptions of the restrictions and
expectations of return differed from that of the donors'.
Second, we examined only one kind of gift—support for individual
faculty research. Gifts to institutions such as new buildings or endowed chairs
may have an entirely different character than those discussed here and, therefore,
these findings may not be applicable to such forms of gifts. Also, because
we studied life science faculty in the 50 most research-intensive universities,
these findings may not be generalizable to less research-intensive institutions.
Third, as mentioned in the "Analysis" section, because of the way the
questionnaire was designed, we could analyze the effects of individual types
of gifts for only a subsample of all gift recipients. The importance and expectations
of return for those faculty who received multiple types of gifts may differ
from those who received only 1 type of gift.
Fourth, we recognize that inferences related to the propriety receiving
of research-related gifts are often subtle and situation specific and are
best made on a case-by-case basis. Restrictions that appear worrisome when
reported on a questionnaire may not be so in actual practice. At a minimum,
expectations associated with research-related gifts deserve significantly
more study and discussion in the academic community. For example, further
studies should directly ask donors (in addition to recipients) what, if any,
restrictions and expectations of return are associated with research-related
gifts. Future studies should also examine the extent of faculty compliance
with restrictions and expectations of return. Studies should investigate the
effects of gifts on graduate students' and faculty members' attitudes and
behaviors regarding data sharing and data withholding.
Despite these limitations, this research shows that gifts from industry
to life scientists are a common and important form of academic-industrial
research relationship and that at times it may be prudent for faculty members
to "look a gift horse in the mouth."