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May 24, 2007

Ethics rules now allow ‘de minimis’ use of UW resources for approved outside work

News and Information

On the one hand, UW faculty are encouraged to help disseminate UW-created innovations beyond the world of academe. That’s what Technology Transfer is all about.


But it’s also true that state and UW policies historically limit how researchers can communicate and work with outside agencies without conflicts of interest or being seen as misusing public funds. That leaves something of a mixed message.


But legislation passed in 2005 and made effective this February — an amendment to the State Ethics Act — has slightly relaxed those ethics rules, allowing researchers a bit more leeway in consulting and other outside work, given that it is approved by the UW.


This was done by creating a new category of state employee called University Research Employee, and approving a separate system of compliance with the Ethics Act for that category. A University Research Employee can be a faculty researcher, a research scientist or even, though less often, a professional staff member who has been granted Principal Investigator status for a research grant.


“The law expressly created a new definition that allows faculty and some of our staff to engage in research and Technology Transfer-related activity using University resources that otherwise would be restricted,” explained Jeff Cheek, UW associate vice provost for research compliance and operations.


The central idea of the change is a focus on de minimus — or minimal and relatively insignificant — impact to the UW’s resources. That is, a faculty researcher or other PI may under the new rules engage in minimal communication or use of UW materials without being in violation of the ethics policies.


Certain conditions apply, however. These include:


  • That the outside work has been approved by the UW,
  • That no consumable UW resources (materials or the time of another UW employee) are used.
  • That no other UW employees are involved except those approved for the same outside work activity.
  • That the employee is not using UW resources to run a private business (other than a consulting business directly pertinent to the research and Technology Transfer efforts.)
  • That the effort does not interfere with the normal duties of the UW employee.


To clarify, here are some examples of permittable uses of UW resources by University Research Employees engaged in approved outside work:


  • Making local or toll-free phone calls on personally assigned UW phone numbers to discuss approved outside work.
  • Using a personally assigned computer and e-mail account to correspond about an outside work matter.
  • Meeting and discussing approved outside work in a personally assigned UW office.
  • Preparing a report or presentation on a personally assigned UW computer to be submitted as part of an approved outside work matter.
  • Doing research for an outside work project using UW Internet access and the UW Libraries (providing no additional charges are incurred.)


Here are some examples of use still prohibited by the Ethics Act and UW policy, even for approved outside work activities:


  • Incurring long-distance or other toll charges on a UW phone to discuss outside work matters.
  • Using UW-purchased consumables (including paper, toner, pens and other supplies) to conduct outside work.
  • Using UW laboratories, lab supplies or hardware to conduct experiments or carry out projects for outside work.
  • Using University cost centers (i.e. services for which there is a charge) for tests, assays or analyses that are part of outside work.
  • Transferring or using UW-owned intellectual property for an outside work assignment.


The new language reflects changes to The Faculty Outside Work Policy, in the University Handbook; the Personal Use of University Facilities, Computers, and Equipment by University Employees and Outside Consulting Activities and Part-Time Employment by Professional or Classified Staff Employees in the Administrative Policy Statements and the Significant Financial Interest Disclosure Policy in the Grants Information Memoranda.


The bottom line, said Cheek, is that “faculty are being asked to interact with the private sector to try to get knowledge out into the community. Does it make sense if we’re telling them that they can’t use an office telephone or computer to make the contact?”


Additional information on the rule change is available online at www.washington.edu/research/ethics.html