Let’s say you make a lot of money in some industry or another, and you’re lucky enough to get an appointment to an agency that regulates that very same industry. Your regulatory decisions could affect your bottom line, and so you have a conflict of interest and you should either be forced to give up your job as a regulator or get rid of all your financial interests in the industry with the provision that you may never acquire financial assets in the industry again. And if you’re a doctor on the payroll of a pharma company, your employment status most definitely affects your medical decisions.
That’s a pretty simple and obvious concept to anyone who doesn’t work in industry. People who work in any given industry tend to think “outsiders” wouldn’t know enough about the industry to regulate it, so of course you’d need someone with major conflicts to understand what really needs to be done. And so it goes.
But other people are described as being conflicted when they really don’t have any conflicts at all. Let’s say you are a researcher, and you apply to a corporation for funding for your research. Congratulations, you now have a huge grant from Megacorp Inc. to fund your lab, materials, research assistants, etc. in hopes of developing new products. You are now just a handsomely rewarded employee of Megacorp Inc. Your only interest is in developing new products for them.
It’s true that some will describe you as conflicted because they think you should be looking out for the public good, but that really isn’t in your job description. You’re just developing products.
And this is why we need public funding for research. So we can demand that researchers we are paying work for the public good and not in the interest of for-profit corporations.