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Florida House targets Chinese interference in higher education

The legislation follows reports of Chinese meddling at Moffitt Cancer Center and the University of Florida.
House Speaker Chris Sprowls listens during a roundtable discussion regarding mental health at the downtown Tampa Firefighter Museum on Friday, Dec. 11, 2020. Gov. Ron DeSantis announced plans to allocate funds from the CARES Act to state mental health services.
House Speaker Chris Sprowls listens during a roundtable discussion regarding mental health at the downtown Tampa Firefighter Museum on Friday, Dec. 11, 2020. Gov. Ron DeSantis announced plans to allocate funds from the CARES Act to state mental health services. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Dec. 15, 2020
Updated Dec. 15, 2020

TALLAHASSEE — Florida lawmakers will consider legislation to protect state universities and research institutions from interference by China, state House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, said Tuesday.

In a tweet, Sprowls said the legislation will come as part of efforts by the House Select Committee on the Integrity of Research Institutions, which was set up by former Speaker Jose Oliva in response to reports of Chinese meddling at Moffitt Cancer Center and at the University of Florida.

“The Florida House launched the 1st State-initiated investigation into China’s coordinated effort to access our Universities & research,” Sprowls tweeted. “Next year, we will propose new legislation to make Florida the national leader in protecting our research institutions.”

The Tampa cancer center, which receives state funding, went through a shake-up after the center’s chief executive officer, a senior member of the center and four researchers resigned over alleged violations of conflict-of-interest rules related to work in China.

Moffitt reported no evidence intellectual property had been stolen or that research of patient care had been compromised, but “out of an abundance of caution” it returned roughly $1.1 million to the state.

Sprowls linked his tweet with a report by the conservative National Review titled, “America’s Elite Universities Hide Contributions from World’s Worst Human-Rights Abusers.” The report said, “While governments of allies such as England, Germany, and Italy all donate directly to U.S. colleges, roughly one-third of declared foreign funds come from nations that abuse human rights on a massive scale.”

The report also noted that “various universities reported receiving $6.6 billion in recent years from countries including Qatar, China, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.”

In an interview Tuesday with the Tampa Bay Times, Sprowls said he thought the state played an important role in oversight.

“One of our greatest assets in the United States is our openness, our willingness to want to work with everyone as a way to find medical cures, as a way to advance what we know,” he said. “But we also have to realize that has made us particularly vulnerable to the Chinese government in particular.”

The state investigation, which Sprowls said included testimony from UF, the University of Central Florida and the FBI, led officials to believe the issue was pervasive and found “numerous instances” of inappropriate ties between researchers or faculty members and the Chinese government, including instances where people fled the state or country and those investigating the incidents had their computers hacked.

Sprowls also mentioned the importance of oversight and reporting funding sources and relations with foreign entities, referring to Confucius institutes, which were shuttered at four Florida universities and colleges after a push from Senator Marco Rubio in 2019.

“It is clear there is a purposeful intent by the Chinese government or members of the Chinese Communist Party to infiltrate our research institutions nationwide,” he said. “Here in Florida where we have some of the premier research institutions in America, they are significant targets.”

The state, he said, has a bigger role to play than the federal government in this, he said.

“Now it’s time to put in the guardrails to protect our research institutions and taxpayer-funded intellectual property from further danger,” he said.

The 2021 legislative session will begin March 2.