Really? No conflicts of interest?

It is becoming the norm in academia to provide lists of conflicts of interest when submitting an article for review at a journal or sometimes even when speaking at conferences.  By and large, I think the move toward transparency is a good one.  

But as one set of authors point out in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, many academics have too narrow a view of what represents an "interest."  Richard Smith and colleagues write:

People who work for public sector institutions regard themselves (and are often regarded) as being neutral, disinterested, and unbiased supporters and defenders of the public interest. There is, however, a large literature by economists and political scientists known as ‘public choice theory’ (that even has its own scholarly journal, Public Choice) that demolishes this pretension.3 Public institutions and the individuals that work for them are found to be self-interested, much like private institutions and their employees. Government bureaucracies seek to maintain and expand their scale and influence, a reality which is captured in arguments against the ideal of impartial civil servants in the Weberian bureaucracy.4–7 United Nations agencies fight over territory and mandates. Individuals working for public institutions with a certain culture (such as the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, where one of us [RF] was the dean) know that their career prospects may be advantaged by being a part of that culture rather than iconoclasts. As others have noted, being a ‘public servant’, or an ‘international public servant’ or the employee of a university does not make one un-self-interested or un-conflicted.8

Academics, especially in applied fields such as global health and medicine, often have numerous relations with not-for-profit organizations – including governments, foundations, non-governmental organizations and United Nations agencies. These relationships typically include some combination of remuneration for advice or assistance, research funding (which may also include salary support for the principal investigator) and travel support. More generally, these relationships are likely to be career enhancing, as when an academic has multiple relations with the World Health Organization (WHO) and is frequently called upon by WHO for services of various kinds. Many of the organizations with which the academic has relations have stated positions on issues affecting public health and indeed many other topics. Surely there is potential here to influence an academic's expression of views – in other words a potential conflict of interest worthy of declaration.

They conclude:

Our message is simple: we must recognize that we are all conflicted and declare accordingly.11 A view of the world that sees employees of private for-profit companies as conflicted and doctors, or employees of public or academic bodies, as not, is naïve, potentially deceptive and likely to distort reader response to new information