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Rice University research finds executive board members are driven by incentives

In a recent study, a Rice Business professor found that board members actually need incentives — both short- and long-term — to act in stakeholders' best interests. Getty Images

If you're a stockholder, you may envision your investment helmed by a benevolent, all-knowing board of directors, sitting around a long finely-grained wooden table, drinking coffee, their heads buried in PowerPoint charts as they labor to plot the best course for the company. Too often, however, you can't take for granted that a company's board will steer it wisely.

Companies choose directors because they offer rich and varied experience in the business world. Many who serve on boards, moreover, are CEOs of other corporations, or have headed big companies in the past. As of October 2018, for example, six of the 11 directors on Walmart's board and eight of 13 on AT&T's board hold CEO or CFO positions in other firms. So it's easy to assume that board members will act in the best interests of stockholders.

But in a recent study, Rice Business professor Shiva Sivaramakrishnan found that board members actually need incentives — both short- and long-term — to act in stakeholders' best interests.

Corporations usually compensate board members with stock options, grants, equity stakes, meeting fees, and cash retainers. How important is such compensation, and what sort of incentives do board members need to perform in the very best interests of a company? Sivaramakrishnan joined co-author George Drymiotes to trace how compensation impacts various aspects of board performance.

Recent literature in corporate governance has already stressed the need to give boards of directors explicit incentives in order to safeguard shareholder welfare. Some observers have even proposed requiring outside board members to hold substantial equity interests. The National Association of Corporate Directors, for example, recommended that boards pay their directors solely with cash or stock, with equity representing a substantial portion of the total, up to 100 percent.

To the extent that directors hold stock in a company, their actions are likely influenced by a variety of long-and short-term incentives. And while the literature has focused mainly on the useful long-term impact of equity awards, the consequences of short-term incentives haven't been as clear. Moreover, according to surveys, most directors view advising as their primary role. But this role also has received little attention.

To scrutinize these issues, the scholars used a simple model, which assumes the board of directors perform three roles: contracting, monitoring and consulting. The board contracts with management to provide productive input that improves a firm's performance. By monitoring management, the board improves the quality of the information conveyed to managers. By serving in a consulting role, the board makes managers more productive, which, in turn, means higher expected firm output.

This model allowed the scholars to better understand the relationship between the board of directors and the company's managers, as well as with shareholders. The former was particularly important to take into account, because conflict between a board and managers is typically unobservable and can be costly.

The results were surprising. Without short-term incentives, the researchers found, boards did not effectively fulfill their multiple roles. Long-term inducements could make a difference, they found, but only in some aspects of board performance.

While board members were better advisors when given long-term motivations, short-term incentives were better motivators for performing well in their other corporate governance roles, according to the research, which tied specific aspects of board compensation to particular board functions.

Restricted equity awards provided the necessary long-term incentives to improve the efficacy of the board's advisory role, the scholars found, but only the short-term incentives, awarding an unrestricted share or a bonus based on short-term performance, motivated conscientious monitoring.

The scholars also examined managerial misconduct. Board monitoring, they concluded, lowered the cost of preventing such wrongdoing — but only if the board had strong short-term incentives in place.

Even at the highest rungs of the corporate ladder, in other words, short-term self-interest is the greatest motivator. Maybe it's not surprising. In the corporate world, acting for one's own benefit is a given — so stockholders need to look more closely at those at the very top. Like everyone else, board directors need occasional brass rings within easy reach to do their best.

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This story originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom.

Shiva Sivaramakrishnan is the Henry Gardiner Symonds Professor in Accounting at the Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

Breakthrough research on metastatic breast cancer, a new way to turn toxic pollutants into valuable chemicals, and an evolved brain tumor chip are three cancer-fighting treatments coming out of Houston. Getty Inages

Cancer remains to be one of the medical research community's huge focuses and challenges, and scientists in Houston are continuing to innovate new treatments and technologies to make an impact on cancer and its ripple effect.

Three research projects coming out of Houston institutions are providing solutions in the fight against cancer — from ways to monitor treatment to eliminating cancer-causing chemicals in the first place.

Baylor College of Medicine's breakthrough in breast cancer

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Researchers at Baylor College of Medicine and Harvard Medical School have unveiled a mechanism explains how "endocrine-resistant breast cancer acquires metastatic behavior," according to a news release from BCM. This research can be game changing for introducing new therapeutic strategies.

The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and shows that hyperactive FOXA1 signaling — previously reported in endocrine-resistant metastatic breast cancer — can trigger genome-wide reprogramming that enhances resistance to treatment.

"Working with breast cancer cell lines in the laboratory, we discovered that FOXA1 reprograms endocrine therapy-resistant breast cancer cells by turning on certain genes that were turned off before and turning off other genes," says Dr. Xiaoyong Fu, assistant professor of molecular and cellular biology and part of the Lester and Sue Smith Breast Center at Baylor, in the release.

"The new gene expression program mimics an early embryonic developmental program that endow cancer cells with new capabilities, such as being able to migrate to other tissues and invade them aggressively, hallmarks of metastatic behavior."

Patients whose cancer is considered metastatic — even ones that initially responded to treatment — tend to relapse and die due to the cancer's resistance to treatment. This research will allow for new conversations around therapeutic treatment that could work to eliminate metastatic cancer.

University of Houston's evolved brain cancer chip

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A biomedical research team at the University of Houston has made improvements on its microfluidic brain cancer chip. The Akay Lab's new chip "allows multiple-simultaneous drug administration, and a massive parallel testing of drug response for patients with glioblastoma," according to a UH news release. GBM is the most common malignant brain tumor and makes up half of all cases. Patients with GBM have a five-year survival rate of only 5.6 percent.

"The new chip generates tumor spheroids, or clusters, and provides large-scale assessments on the response of these GBM tumor cells to various concentrations and combinations of drugs. This platform could optimize the use of rare tumor samples derived from GBM patients to provide valuable insight on the tumor growth and responses to drug therapies," says Metin Akay, John S. Dunn Endowed Chair Professor of Biomedical Engineering and department chair, in the release.

Akay's team published a paper in the inaugural issue of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine & Biology Society's Open Journal of Engineering in Medicine and Biology. The report explains how the technology is able to quickly assess how well a cancer drug is improving its patients' health.

"When we can tell the doctor that the patient needs a combination of drugs and the exact proportion of each, this is precision medicine," Akay explains in the release.

Rice University's pollution transformation technology

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Rice University engineers have developed a way to get rid of cancer-causing pollutants in water and transform them into valuable chemicals. A team lead by Michael Wong and Thomas Senftle has created this new catalyst that turns nitrate into ammonia. The study was published in the journal ACS Catalysis.

"Agricultural fertilizer runoff is contaminating ground and surface water, which causes ecological effects such as algae blooms as well as significant adverse effects for humans, including cancer, hypertension and developmental issues in babies," says Wong, professor and chair of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering in Rice's Brown School of Engineering, in a news release. "I've been very curious about nitrogen chemistry, especially if I can design materials that clean water of nitrogen compounds like nitrites and nitrates."

The ability to transform these chemicals into ammonia is crucial because ammonia-based fertilizers are used for global food supplies and the traditional method of creating ammonia is energy intensive. Not only does this process eliminate that energy usage, but it's ridding the contaminated water of toxic chemicals.

"I'm excited about removing nitrite, forming ammonia and hydrazine, as well as the chemistry that we figured out about how all this happens," Wong says in the release. "The most important takeaway is that we learned how to clean water in a simpler way and created chemicals that are more valuable than the waste stream."