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Florida House speaker calls for investigation into China-Moffitt ties

Speaker José Oliva taps state Rep. Chris Sprowls to find out whether China benefits from millions spent on medical research at Florida institutions.

Florida House Speaker José Oliva said Thursday that state Rep. Chris Sprowls will investigate ties between China and Tampa’s H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute following Wednesday’s announcement that the center’s CEO and others have been ousted.

“The news (stories) coming out of Moffitt Cancer Center are of great concern and compel further investigation," Oliva said in a statement. “While Moffitt’s leadership acted swiftly and decisively, a deeper look into this and all of our institutions is in order.”

In an interview Thursday, Sprowls said actions by Moffitt’s CEO, Dr. Alan List, and other center employees had aided infiltration efforts by China and were indefensible. The Palm Harbor Republican, a former prosecutor, said lawmakers should take steps to make sure similar activity isn’t occurring at other academic institutions across the state.

“These research institutions benefit from vast sums of state and federal resources that are funded by American taxpayers,” said Sprowls, who is slated to succeed Oliva as House speaker. “For these researchers to receive monetary gain from the Chinese government and to pilfer our research, that is just alarming news. And I don’t believe it is isolated to Moffitt.”

State Rep. Chris Sprowls greets Florida House Speaker Jose Oliva last year after Oliva was sworn in at the Florida Capitol. On Thursday, Oliva appointed Sprowls to investigate Chinese efforts to benefit from millions spent on medical research at Florida institutions.
State Rep. Chris Sprowls greets Florida House Speaker Jose Oliva last year after Oliva was sworn in at the Florida Capitol. On Thursday, Oliva appointed Sprowls to investigate Chinese efforts to benefit from millions spent on medical research at Florida institutions. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

Moffitt received more than $36 million this year in grants from the National Institutes of Health, one of the federal agencies investigating the extent to which China is benefiting from U.S.-based medical research.

RELATED: Moffitt Cancer Center shakeup: CEO and others resign over China ties

Moffitt’s board of directors announced Wednesday that List, along with Thomas Sellers, a vice president and director at Moffitt, and four of the cancer center’s researchers resigned under pressure because of a controversy that linked them to possible exploitation of American-funded research by China. List will continue to treat his current patients at Moffitt. He did not respond to multiple phone calls and emails requesting an interview.

Moffitt officials did not divulge whether List and others accepted money from China, but said an internal investigation revealed conflicts of interest and a lack of disclosure of international collaborators. Officials said there is no indication that Moffitt research was compromised or that patient care has been affected.

“We found evidence that people were compensated through the Thousand Talents program and failed to disclose that,” Moffitt officials disclosed Thursday.

The reference was to a program China uses as a tool to recruit talent from Western countries. Sprowls said it’s been “widely reported” that Americans involved in Thousand Talents have received monetary gains.

Dr. Alan List resigned this week as CEO of Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa.
Dr. Alan List resigned this week as CEO of Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

“I plan to take an active role in looking into the firewalls in place to protect our intellectual property and proprietary information,” Sprowls said. “The Legislature funds these institutions and we need to account for the money we’ve already spent. Taxpayers deserve to know that their money is not subsidizing the Chinese government.”

It was unclear whether Moffitt’s 12-year research and education partnership with the Tianjin Medical University Cancer Institute and Hospital, a 2,400-bed hospital outside of Beijing, is also a source of concern. Moffitt officials are reviewing the arrangement and have alerted the federal government of their preliminary findings.

Thousand Talents was one of hundreds of programs created by the Chinese government to lure back esteemed scientists to improve the quality of the country’s research and innovation, said Ross McKinney, chief scientific officer for the Association of American Medical Colleges.

“The problem wasn’t the recruitment. That happens all the time and there’s nothing wrong with it,” he said. “The problem came when scientists didn’t want to come to China, so instead they’d offer them a part-time job and instructed them not to tell anyone about it.”

Researchers would be paid for their work, sometimes in Chinese currency. Others would steal ideas from peer-reviewed proposals. In some cases, Chinese researchers would copy data and install malware on university campuses, McKinney said.

“These researchers were told to lie,” he said. “And all of a sudden, someone in China is doing the very project you proposed to do. It is a very serious structural effort on the part of the Chinese government.”

RELATED: In need of an upgrade, Moffitt Cancer Center seeks millions more from state cigarette tax

Oliva alluded to that activity in his statement Thursday.

“Floridians, and all Americans, should be greatly concerned at both the potential theft of intellectual property and the corruption it implies,” the statement said. "Compromising our public health and research institutions puts all of us at risk. The Florida House will do everything in our power to hold people, and institutions, accountable.”

In an email, NIH officials said Moffitt’s review showed “that several individuals involved in NIH grants, some of whom are members of the Moffitt Cancer Center leadership team, failed to disclose substantial contributions of resources from other organizations, foreign affiliations, and financial conflicts of interest.”

The statement also said NIH will work with Moffitt “to determine the extent of the violations and remediation actions.” The response, it said, could include the removal of more researchers and the return of grant money to the government. The agency also commended Moffitt for “identifying and disclosing these violations to NIH.”

The agency, one of the largest funding sources for medical research in the world, has launched 170 formal inquiries into American academic institutions this year where ties to China were unclear. Researchers were fired at Emory University and the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. In some cases, the FBI is involved.

“China has pioneered a societal approach to stealing innovation in any way it can from a wide array of businesses, universities and organizations," FBI Director Christopher Wray said in April. "They’re doing it through Chinese intelligence services, through state-owned enterprises, through ostensibly private companies, through graduate students and researchers, through a variety of actors all working on behalf of China.”

Wray added: “At the FBI, we have economic espionage investigations that almost invariably lead back to China in nearly all of our 56 field offices, and they span just about every industry or sector.”

But rooting out who is leaking information has been a challenge, McKinney said. The scale and scope of the problem was even difficult to define in a study released in December by JASON, an independent group of scientists which advise the U.S. government.

“We don’t know how deep it goes. We’re not good at this sort of inspection,” he said.

For decades, American medical and research institutions have forged relationships with foreign collaborators to share information and research strategy, said Jay Wolfson, a professor at the University of South Florida’s College of Public Health and an expert on health care policy.

“For years, some of our best and brightest students have come to study in America from China, South Korea, India and South American countries," he said. "Some stay and join faculty. Others return home and want to maintain those relationships. Collaboration like this improves quality of life and science.”

McKinney reiterated the point, saying the U.S. has a rich history of science being done by immigrants and in collaboration with other countries. “It’s a shame that it could be damaged by the effects this program has had on trust,” he said.

Some scientists fear the U.S. government could go too far and create regulations that would stifle future research collaborations, said William Colglazier, a senior scholar with the Center for Science Diplomacy at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

“There are two sides of this coin," he said. “It’s in everyone’s interest that we can all benefit from any breakthroughs that happen in science, no matter where they are. The other side is that clearly China has not followed the norms and standards of ethical requirements, and they need to understand that this cannot continue.”

Any investigation by state lawmakers would look into other academic institutions in Florida beyond Moffitt, including the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, the University of South Florida and the University of Florida, which also receive NIH grants.

UF Health in Gainesville strengthened its processes and protocols recently due to the NIH inquiries, said spokesman Steve Orlando. That included launching a dedicated website to explain new requirements of researchers.

Earlier in the year, Moffitt officials had pitched a multi-million dollar expansion to its Tampa campus to meet greater patient needs. Sprowls said state funding for the cancer center’s expansion project isn’t off the table, but Moffitt leadership has some questions to answer first.

“It’s a separate issue," Sprowls said. “But they have to account for these unanswered questions.”