University of Florida also a target in foreign research scandal

In a scenario similar to last month’s revelations about Moffitt Cancer Center, four UF faculty members were found to have ties with foreign recruitment programs.
Century Tower rises at the center of the University of Florida campus, where four medical school researchers recently were found to have had foreign interactions that violated university rules.
Century Tower rises at the center of the University of Florida campus, where four medical school researchers recently were found to have had foreign interactions that violated university rules. [ University of Florida ]
Published Jan. 14, 2020|Updated Jan. 14, 2020

Four faculty members from the University of Florida have left the school amid a widening investigation into foreign exploitation of American-funded medical research.

Three of the researchers resigned and one was terminated after the university received a letter from the National Institutes of Health regarding questionable foreign meddling in grant research and funding. The terminated employee worked part time for the university’s College of Medicine. Two were from the College of Engineering and one was from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Two of the researchers were tied directly to the inquiry by the federal agency, which gives out $30 billion a year to American scientists and universities for biomedical research. Activity by the two others came to light during the university’s own review, said UF spokesman Steve Orlando.

The National Institutes of Health awarded UF more than $190 million in grants last year, more than any other Florida university. The school now joins the ranks of Tampa’s Moffitt Cancer Center, which last month became part of the government’s inquiry into whether America’s investment in top scientific research is being systematically stolen by foreign actors.

Moffitt cut ties with its CEO Dr. Alan List and five other employees over their failure to disclose ties to Chinese programs that aim to improve the quality of that country’s research and innovation by luring back esteemed scientists. Researchers would be paid for their work, sometimes in Chinese currency. Others would steal ideas from peer-reviewed proposals that originated the U.S. and were funded by U.S. agencies.

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

Evidence was found that the six Moffitt employees were potentially compensated by a Chinese talent recruitment program and failed to disclose it, officials at the center said. 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.

The NIH has launched 180 individual inquiries into 70 institutions related to foreign attempts to take advantage of U.S.-backed medical research.

“The university has identified certain faculty members who were participating or were seeking to participate in a foreign talents program. The university has addressed or is in the process of addressing each of these matters,” UF President W. Kent Fuchs wrote in a Dec. 13 letter to U.S. Senator Rick Scott.

Earlier in the month, Scott sent letters to Florida university presidents requesting more information on any steps they have taken to protect intellectual property from “the influence of foreign adversaries, including Communist China”.

Chris Hartline, Scott’s communications director, confirmed that three responses from universities have been received. The University of South Florida in Tampa had yet to submit a response as of Monday.

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RELATED: Florida House speaker calls for investigation into China-Moffitt ties

At the state level, Rep. Chris Sprowls is leading a committee in the Florida House to investigate the Moffitt case and others in the state. That committee will meet for the first time on Jan. 21, Sprowls said.

Meanwhile, other connections to Chinese recruitment programs are being discovered at research institutions across the country. A federal judge will decide what becomes of Feng “Franklin” Tao, an engineering professor, for allegedly working for China in secret while also working for the University of Kansas. Another cancer researcher in Boston is accused of trying to smuggle stolen lab samples in his luggage. He was attempting to board a flight to Beijing when authorities stopped him, according to the New York Times.

RELATED: Moffitt turmoil began with national concern over China, stolen research

The University of Florida launched a website outlining the proper disclosure requirements for researchers last year. It also developed a new international risk assessment process to screen activities with foreign institutions and developed an electronic system to monitor the disclosures of outside activities and interests, which Fuchs outlined in his letter to Scott.

The UF president also offered to travel to Washington, D.C., to meet with Scott in person.

“The university does not approve participation in foreign talents programs as an outside activity,” Fuchs wrote. “Any faculty member who fails to disclose their participation in a foreign talents program is subject to discipline, including termination for cause.”