Guidelines on Conflict of Interest for NSERC Council Members
1. The Conflict of Interest Act
Council members are subject to certain provisions of the Conflict of Interest Act (the Act), which establishes clear conflict of interest and post-employment rules for public office holders. It minimizes the possibility of conflicts arising between the private interests and public duties of public office holders, and provides for the resolution of those conflicts in the public interest should they arise.
The Act states that “a public office holder is in a conflict of interest when he or she exercises an official power, duty or function that provides an opportunity to further his or her private interests or those of his or her relatives or friends or to improperly further another person’s private interests.”
It further states that “every public office holder shall arrange his or her private affairs in a manner that will prevent the public office holder from being in a conflict of interest.”
The Act is limited to fairly specific circumstances for public office holders and requires them to recuse themselves from any discussion, decision, debate or vote if they would be in a conflict of interest.
2. Conflict of interest and NSERC
The Code of Ethics and Business Conduct for NSERC Council Members (NSERC Code) covers aspects of ethics and conflict of interest not necessarily covered by the Act.
At NSERC, conflict of interest is a broad term that includes real, potential and perceived conflicts. Some cases of potential and perceived conflict of interest may not always be covered by the Act.
A real conflict of interest, as described above in respect of the Conflict of Interest Act, would exist if a Council member were an applicant on a proposal that needed to go before the Council for a recommendation on funding.
A potential conflict of interest is one that could possibly develop or happen in the future (e.g., a Council member is considering collaborating with an organization or considering employment with an organization that is seeking significant funding from NSERC, and the Council is reviewing the proposal).
A perceived conflict of interest exists if there could be a reasonable apprehension that a conflict exists and that the member may not be able to act in an impartial way (e.g., a Council member is from the same university as an applicant on a proposal that is being considered by the Council).
NSERC allows for a range of measures (not just recusal) for dealing with different conflict of interest situations (see section 3 below).
The first guardian of ethical behaviour in the event of a conflict of interest is the individual member involved. The onus is on the member to disclose a conflict. The second guardian is the Council as a whole. Rules of disclosure and procedure can assist members in meeting their obligations, but only if they choose to invoke them and to follow them both to the letter and in the spirit in which they were formulated. Members must openly disclose any real, potential or perceived conflicts of interest and ensure that such conflicts are resolved in the public interest.
3. Procedures for managing conflicts of interest
Members will be provided with an agenda and/or notified of issues in advance of Council meetings or activities so as to be able to ascertain whether they are in a real, perceived or potential conflict of interest situation.
When a member is unsure about whether a real, potential or perceived conflict of interest exists, they should consult the Corporate Secretary and the Office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner if appropriate.
Where a member ascertains that he or she is in a real, potential or perceived conflict of interest situation, he or she must disclose the conflict in writing to the Corporate Secretary, who will advise the Council Chair and the President.
Upon receipt of the written disclosure, the President and Chair shall determine whether a real, potential or perceived conflict of interest exists, and determine compliance measures that may be necessary, in agreement with the Council member. The member will take appropriate action to resolve the conflict in favour of the public interest. If the conflict of interest situation is covered by the Act, the member must recuse himself or herself from the discussion, decision, debate or vote. The member and/or the Corporate Secretary may consult with the Office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner to determine if the Act applies and is being respected.
Conflicts of interest that arise unexpectedly during the course of a Council meeting will be disclosed verbally by the member at the meeting. The President and Chair shall determine whether a real, potential or perceived conflict of interest exists, and determine compliance measures that may be necessary, in agreement with the Council member. If the conflict of interest situation is covered by the Act, the member must recuse himself or herself from the discussion, decision, debate or vote in question.
If an undisclosed real, potential or perceived conflict of interest with respect to a member comes to the attention of the Corporate Secretary, the President or Council Chair, the matter will be addressed as outlined above.
While the Act requires that members in conflict of interest recuse themselves from the discussion, decision, debate or vote in question, NSERC allows for other compliance measures to be taken in cases of conflict of interest not covered by the Act. Depending on the nature of the conflict, disclosure may be sufficient. In other cases, members may participate in discussions, but not vote on the decision. If a member is required to withdraw from specific Council activities or from discussions and/or votes on matters, the official minutes of the meeting shall record the member's absence or abstention from the discussions and/or votes. If the conflict may fall under the Act, the minutes will be forwarded to the Office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner by the Corporate Secretary.
4. When members are NSERC applicants or co-applicants
The role of the Council is normally separate from the process of making funding decisions on proposals submitted through NSERC’s established programs. During their Council term, members may apply as applicants and co-applicants for funding from NSERC’s established programs, but must declare a conflict of interest and recuse themselves from Council discussions and decisions with respect to their application if the proposal eventually comes before the Council for a funding recommendation.
Occasionally, the Council may review and recommend funding for proposals that may have been submitted outside NSERC’s established programs. Members may not apply to NSERC as the principal applicant for such proposals. Members may be co-applicants on such proposals, but must declare a conflict of interest and recuse themselves from the discussion and decision if the proposal comes before the Council.
5. When members act as peer reviewers on a selection, advisory or other special or standing committee
Occasionally, members may be required to act as reviewers:
- as a Council member making a recommendation on funding for a proposal, and
- as a member of a prize committee (e.g., Steacie, Polanyi, Brockhouse).
When the Council is acting in such a capacity, the Conflict of Interest and Confidentiality Policy of the Federal Research Funding Organizations and the Conflict of Interest and Confidentiality Agreement for Review Committee Members, External Reviewers, and Observers apply to members.
Council members may not be appointed to serve as members of regular NSERC selection committees (for grants or scholarships programs).
6. When members act as referees
Members may act as referees for proposals within established programs, but do not do so in their capacity as Council members. Members may not act as referees for proposals outside the established program structure.
7. When members act as supporters of others’ applications
As part of their professional duties outside the Council, members may be required to sign a grant or award application for another person in support of NSERC funding. If such applications come before the Council for final recommendation, the member should declare a conflict of interest and recuse himself or herself from discussions or decisions on the matter.
The Corporate Secretary may seek advice from the Office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner on conflict of interest issues covered by the Act. Members may communicate directly with the Office of the Commissioner for advice.
The Corporate Secretary may seek advice from legal counsel and senior management in assessing conflicts and in developing recommendations to the President and Chair on compliance measures for conflict of interest issues covered by the NSERC Code.