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The Moffitt Cancer Center is Florida’s only federally designated Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Moffitt Cancer Center

Moffitt Cancer Center details links of fired scientists to Chinese talent programs

Six Florida cancer researchers who were dismissed last month for hiding their ties to a Chinese medical university appear to have been motivated by simple greed and a disregard for both institutional and federal rules. 

That’s the take-home message in a report from the Moffitt Cancer Center to state legislators, who have launched a probe of foreign research collaborations at state-funded universities, including ties to China’s Thousand Talents or another foreign talent recruitment program.

The Thousand Talents Program is at the center of both investigations. “None of the Moffitt faculty who were Talents program participants properly or timely disclosed their Talents program involvement to Moffitt, and none disclosed the full extent of their Talents program activities prior to Moffitt’s internal investigation,” Moffitt officials wrote on 17 January to state Representative Chris Sprowls (R), who leads a special legislative committee created this month. “All Moffitt faculty participants in the Talents programs acknowledged receiving personal payments that they did not promptly disclose to Moffitt. They also acknowledged having opened or maintained personal bank accounts in China to receive Talents program compensation.”

In announcing their resignations on 18 December 2019, Moffitt identified former CEO Alan List and the director of its research program, Thomas Sellers, but withheld the names of the other four researchers. The letter to Sprowls fills in that gap, along with a detailed description of how the researchers became involved with the talent recruit program and the payments they received from Tianjin Medical University Cancer Institute Hospital (TMUCIH). Moffitt has also given the committee nearly 1400 pages of material, some of it confidential, in advance of the panel’s first hearing on Tuesday.

A web of connections

The report says the ringleader was immunologist Sheng Wei, a Tianjin Medical University graduate, who came to Moffitt in 1992. Wei began to receive support from the Thousand Talents Program in 2011 and over the next several years recruited four colleagues, beginning with List. The others were Sellers; Daniel Sullivan, head of Moffitt’s clinical science program; and cancer biologist Pearlie Epling-Burnette. Wei, the report adds, “unsuccessfully sought to recruit other Moffitt faculty members.”

The sixth scientist who was fired, pharmacogenomicist Howard McLeod, was already participating in the Thousand Talents Program, funded by other Chinese institutions when he came to Moffitt in 2013 to lead an institute on personalized medicine. According to the report, McLeod had enlisted a Chinese scientist, Yijing He, as his “agent in China,” and managed to put him on Moffitt’s payroll for 5 years—although the scientist never actually did any work for the Florida cancer center. Instead, “Dr. He facilitated a wide variety of opportunities and activities in China, both commercial and academic, for himself and Dr. McLeod,” the report states.

Wei, the only ethnic Chinese person among the six fired researchers, was instrumental in establishing and maintaining his colleagues’ connections with TMUCIH, according to the report.

“As part of his recruitment efforts, Dr. Wei interfaced with China personnel, supplied forms, collected materials and videos, all to enable TMUCIH to gain Talents program participants from Moffitt (and at least a few U.S. scientists from outside Moffitt),” the report explains. “Dr. Wei served as intermediary between Moffitt personnel and TMUCIH, often leading trips to TMUCIH translating communications.”

“Over this period of time,” the report continues, “Dr. Wei maintained contact regarding Talents program applications with TMUCIH personnel, as well as other apparent Chinese contacts. Determining specifically with whom Dr. Wei communicated over this time period is difficult because communications were often to various web-based email addresses not directly traceable to individuals or entities and were in Mandarin Chinese.”

Secret payments

The six Moffitt researchers add to a growing list of scientists who have been found to have violated institutional and federal policies on disclosing who is funding their research. In August 2018, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) began to send letters to more than 60 grantee institutions about nearly 200 individuals NIH believed had skirted its rules. In spring of 2019, the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and Emory University went public with their investigations, but most institutions have kept mum about what they have found. Last week, the University of Florida acknowledged that it had dismissed four faculty members, but did not release their names nor details of their infractions.

Moffitt says it did not receive any letters from NIH. Rather, Sullivan and employees contacted its compliance office in January 2019 with information that triggered the investigation. Along the way, Moffitt also enlisted two national law firms: Ropes & Gray, which has extensive experience advising universities on compliance issues, and Greenberg Traurig, in case the federal government decides to file criminal charges.

The report, which was released to ScienceInsider in response to a public records request, concludes that the six scientists had violated several policies relating to disclosure of financial relationships with outside entities. Moffitt was already receiving $500,000 a year from TMUCIH, the report notes, and the scientists erred in not reporting their personal remuneration from that institution. In addition, they failed to disclose what they were receiving to NIH in grant applications. Finally, the report notes, they failed to disclose the existence of personal bank accounts in China in which the unreported funds were deposited.

“It is not clear how much personal income or research support each involved individual at Moffitt received for his or her participation in the Talents programs,” the report acknowledges. But it assumes that the total ran to millions of dollars, based on information that China has published on what Talents participants can expect to receive in personal salary, research support, bonuses, and other types of compensation.

Were services rendered?

The report leaves unanswered the question of what the scientists did in return for the money they received. It describes how McLeod and Wei appear to have been running what NIH has called “shadow labs,” using existing federal grants from U.S. agencies to help carry out research in China. But the report also suggests several Moffitt scientists were scamming their Chinese funders by not putting in the time they had promised under their Thousand Talents deals.

“Dr. Wei stated that the substantial [2 or 3 months per year] time commitments he elicited on recorded videos from all Moffitt faculty participants, including Dr. List, were an open ‘lie’ necessary to apply for the Talents programs and to enable the participating Moffitt faculty to receive their Talents programs payments,” the report says.

The report also condemns a work culture that tolerated such behavior and puts the onus on List. “Several Moffitt faculty cited the personal participation of Moffitt leadership in the Talents programs—specifically, the participation of Dr. List—as a reason for their own agreement to participate.”

Moffitt’s board of directors spent weeks poring over the results of the investigation before deciding that the six scientists had to go. All of them officially resigned. And officials believe they have limited the damage. “There is no evidence to date that intellectual property has been stolen or that research or patient care has been compromised,” the report concludes.