Under the banner of promoting the Maryland economy, bills pending in the General Assembly would greatly relax conflict-of-interest guidelines for University of Maryland researchers -- allowing them to become paid consultants, shareholders or officers of corporations that profit from their discoveries or inventions.
Until recently, such close relationships between university researchers and companies that exploit their findings have been discouraged. It was feared that a direct profit motive might lead professors to manipulate or falsify their research.
Researchers at University of Maryland System campuses, like all state employees, must receive a formal waiver from the State Ethics Commission before they can earn significant outside income. They also must secure approval from a campus review board.
State officials, including Gov. Parris N. Glendening, say that is too cumbersome to help start-up businesses that need to capitalize quickly on discoveries by academics. The bills would eliminate the involvement of the ethics commission.
The rules also put Maryland at a disadvantage in competing for faculty members with private universities and public colleges elsewhere, the legislation's advocates say.
Administration officials say the changes are particularly important to the work of Dr. Robert Gallo, an AIDS researcher who recently joined the University of Maryland.
Scholars at the University of Maryland at Baltimore, the University of Maryland College Park and the University of Maryland Baltimore County also are expected to benefit if the legislation passes, which appears likely.
The new rules could lead to sticky situations, however.
Say, for example, that Dr. Jones, a hypothetical pharmacology professor, gets a patent on a drug that cures bad breath. Her university licenses the patent to the New Drug Co. to make and sell the drug. The royalties are then split between Dr. Jones and the university.
All of that is allowed under current law.
But what if New Drug felt that only Dr. Jones had the know-how to oversee production of the drug? New Drug might offer Dr. Jones a position as a consultant at $100,000 a year, or give her 10,000 shares and make her the head of its research department.
Under the proposed legislation, she could accept that offer as long as a university review board and campus administrators approved.
Now suppose that she got that approval -- and that one of her graduate students later discovered that the drug could cause blindness.
If the information became public, the value of shares in New Drug could plummet -- and Dr. Jones' personal fortunes with them. So she might feel pressure to play down or suppress her graduate student's report.
UM administrators say their internal procedures would screen out inappropriate situations. But critics say such conflicts have emerged at campuses across the nation as the border between the ivory tower and the corporate boardroom has blurred.
At Harvard University, a medical research fellow was sued in 1989 after he dumped stock in a company whose drug his unpublished studies had revealed to be ineffective. Shareholders who suffered sharp losses said he initially minimized his findings to give him time to sell his stock.
At the University of Florida, a pharmacy professor's discovery led to a number of hirings by a business called Pharmatec. A dean and four department chairmen became paid consultants and were given stock. When a faculty colleague raised concerns that the chemical treatment could pose a health threat, he was pressured and eventually resigned.
Observers say such incidents show the dangers of allowing professors to have too great a financial interest in the outcome of their research.
"Where there's money at stake, there's high incentive either to produce phony results or to overplay its promise," said Leonard Minsky, executive director of the National Coalition for Universities in the Public Interest, a Washington-based watchdog group. "You've introduced greed as a motivating force."
Dr. Ellen K. Silbergeld is a toxicologist with the University of Maryland School of Medicine whose test for lead poisoning led to a patent licensed by the university to Abbott Laboratories. She will receive money from royalties if her test is marketed commercially, but she said she does not want closer ties than that.
"If I stand to gain directly from the results of my research, I personally think that's not ethical," Dr. Silbergeld said. "It would place me in a difficult ethical position."
University officials, however, said they need to offer researchers the ability to earn more money from their own discoveries, both to help in recruiting faculty members and to promote research with commercial applications.
State officials see such research as important to their economic development efforts, particularly in pharmacology, biotechnology and computers.
"If [researchers] don't have the incentive -- if there's no carrot and no stick -- then nothing's going to happen," said Donald N. Langenberg, chancellor of the University of Maryland System.
Since 1980, when federal patent law was changed, campuses have aggressively pursued links with private enterprise to create new sources of revenue.
Selling the licenses to patents can add up to significant sums: In the year that ended June 30, 1994, the University of California System made more than $50 million that way, the Johns Hopkins University, nearly $2.3 million.
The University of Maryland System is a relative newcomer to the field. Its College Park campus took in $671,000 from patent licenses in fiscal 1994, while the University of Maryland at Baltimore received $274,000.
The only opposition to the bills has come from the State Ethics Commission. Executive Director John E. O'Donnell notes that university presidents and administrators often serve as paid board members for corporations, even companies with which their campuses do business.
That kind of arrangement creates at least the appearance of conflict of interest, Mr. O'Donnell said, adding that he is leery of university officials' promises to review their peers adequately.
But the ethics commission's involvement bogs down an already cumbersome process, said Dr. Joann A. Boughman, vice president for research at UMAB.
Dr. Boughman said the process required for licensing Dr. Silbergeld's lead test showed a need for streamlining. But Dr. Silbergeld said she was not bothered by the current state oversight.
"I think having close scrutiny is not a bad idea," Dr. Silbergeld said. "There are a lot of temptations out there. It's important that the integrity of the university be preserved."