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Florida state Representative Chris Sprowls (R) is leading a special panel looking into foreign influences on publicly supported research.

AP Photo/Steve Cannon

Florida joins U.S. government in probing foreign ties of researchers

Florida lawmakers have begun an investigation into the foreign ties of researchers at the state’s universities and research institutions. The inquiry, the first of its kind at the state level, dovetails with an ongoing federal probe into whether such affiliations, notably with Chinese entities, pose a risk to the U.S. research enterprise.

The Florida effort is triggered by revelations last month that six scientists at the Moffitt Cancer Center had been dismissed for failing to disclose their participation in China’s Thousand Talents Program. The researchers include the center’s CEO, Alan List, and the head of its research center, Thomas Sellers.

“I’m appalled by the actions of the Moffitt CEO and some of its researchers,” says state Representative Chris Sprowls (R), who is chair of a bipartisan select committee created by Republican House Speaker José Oliva. “The question is, has there also been any theft of intellectual property? Clearly, the intent is there.”

The Moffitt case is the latest instance of scientists being ousted from U.S. biomedical research institutions after being accused of failing to disclose foreign research ties or undermining the integrity of the process by which the National Institutes of Health (NIH) funds research. The MD Anderson Cancer Center cut ties with three scientists in April 2019 as part of a larger investigation, and 1 month later Emory University announced it had fired two neuroscientists. All five were Asian Americans.

“No front door”

In the past 18 months, NIH has raised questions about the conduct of nearly 200 NIH-funded scientists at more than 60 institutions it funds. Many of the cases involve researchers who received money from Thousand Talents or another Chinese foreign talent recruitment program and did not report it to their institutions.

A nonprofit privacy entity created by the Florida legislature in 1981, Moffitt is one of 51 NIH comprehensive cancer centers; last year it garnered $36 million in NIH funding. Moffitt did not receive any letters from NIH raising concerns about foreign ties, according to a center spokesperson. Instead, it conducted its own investigation after learning that some scientists had failed to comply with NIH and Moffitt policies.

Moffitt does not prohibit foreign collaborations, according to the spokesperson, “but disclosure is mandatory and the specific arrangements have to comply with Moffitt’s rules and expectations.” Moffitt is reviewing its rules governing such collaborations, the spokesperson adds.

The new special legislative committee “will examine any further improper or illegal activities involving Florida’s research universities, medical research facilities, and individuals associated with such institutions,” Oliva said in announcing its formation on 30 December 2019. Sprowls, who is in line to succeed Oliva as House speaker in 2021, says the panel has carte blanche to request records, hold hearings, and gather evidence of what Oliva called “Chinese meddling in Florida taxpayer-funded research.”

Sprowls says the committee has the authority to examine behavior at any institution that receives state funds, regardless of the type of research it conducts. Its charter runs through November, and its first hearing is scheduled for 21 January. And Sprowls, a 35-year-old Republican who represents a district just north of Tampa, is expected to draw on his experience as a state prosecutor in exploring how research institutions monitor foreign collaborations by faculty members.

“The problem with universities is that there is no front door,” he says. “There are lots of ways that researchers interact with colleagues around the world. And while I think that scientific collaboration is important, the reality is that university research is at risk from interventions by foreign governments. And we know they are already doing it.”

“My concern is making sure that tax dollars benefit the residents of Florida and not some other country,” Sprowls continued. “And at this point, I’m not convinced that simply disclosing those ties is sufficient. Universities have already demonstrated that, left to their own devices, they are not doing enough to protect our investment.”

Increased oversight

At least one research administrator at a Florida university thinks campuses around the state are already doing a pretty good job of following the rules, and he isn’t sure what will come of the state probe. “I don’t know if legislators are aware of how much we are already doing to address their concerns,” says Gary Ostrander, who, as vice president for research at Florida State University (FSU), is responsible for making sure that his institution complies with the myriad policies governing federally funded research.

Ostrander, who also leads a group of a dozen research chiefs from Florida universities that meets regularly, predicts that Florida institutions “will be giving [legislators] a lot of information that will impress and surprise them. And once we do, I hope they will see that Florida [institutions] are on top of this.”

Ostrander acknowledges that current FSU guidelines might not convey that sense of vigilance. “We haven’t put out a policy yet,” he says when asked whether FSU allows faculty members to participate in Thousand Talents. “But Thousand Talents has been identified as a recruitment tool that can be used for espionage. And we’ve made it clear that [faculty] should not be doing it.”

FSU received some $36 million last year from NIH, and Ostrander says the university did not receive any letters questioning the behavior of its faculty members. But that doesn’t mean FSU researchers are free to do as they please.

Participants in the Thousand Talents Program are often expected to spend a few months or more at their sponsoring Chinese institution, an arrangement that can make it impossible for them to carry out the research that NIH or another U.S. agency is funding. To avoid such conflicts of commitment, Ostrander says, FSU faculty are not allowed to hold a position at another institution. Maintaining what NIH calls a “shadow laboratory” in China is also a no-no, he says, and anyone who violates those rules is putting their job at risk.

At the University of Florida (UF), which received $190 million from NIH last year and conducts more research than any other university in the state, officials say NIH asked about the conduct of two faculty members with NIH funding. The university investigated “possible failure to disclose outside research support, relevant affiliations, or foreign components,” says Steve Orlando, assistant vice president for communications, and both faculty members have resigned as a result of the investigation.

UF officials have also tightened rules regarding foreign collaborations. The university now strongly discourages faculty participation in any foreign talent recruitment program, Orlando says, although in rare cases it might approve such a relationship. A faculty member who fails to disclose their involvement in such a program is subject to termination, he adds. At the same time, Orlando says, “Our campus remains an open and welcoming place to students, faculty, and staff from around the world.”

Let the Sun shine in

Despite holding different perspectives on the scope of the problem, Ostrander and Sprowls agree that transparency is the key to preserving research integrity.

“Although some measure of confidentiality may be necessary, it is my intention to make public as much information as is humanely possible,” Sprowls says about the fruits of his committee’s investigation. A Moffitt spokesperson says the cancer center has already shared its findings with state legislators and is preparing to release a “trove” of documents relating to the investigation.

Ostrander says FSU is also eager to work with Sprowls’s panel. “We have a reputation for being transparent,” he boasts. And he has some advice for faculty members who wonder whether they have crossed the line. “Come by and talk to us,” Ostrander says. “Don’t wait until we hear about it from the Department of Homeland Security or the FBI. Because that could be a career-ender.”