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Faculty members held jobs in China while working for UF, report says

They also collected grant money from the U.S. government while never disclosing their outside work in China.
Joseph Hernandez Hall is home to the University of Florida's chemistry department, where a faculty member recently resigned after officials discovered he failed to disclose his strong ties to China. While at UF, the faculty member also held positions at two Chinese universities, including vice president and dean. The faculty member was not named in a report obtained Tuesday from the Florida Legislature. [University of Florida]
Joseph Hernandez Hall is home to the University of Florida's chemistry department, where a faculty member recently resigned after officials discovered he failed to disclose his strong ties to China. While at UF, the faculty member also held positions at two Chinese universities, including vice president and dean. The faculty member was not named in a report obtained Tuesday from the Florida Legislature. [University of Florida]
Published Jan. 21
Updated Jan. 21

For years while he taught at the University of Florida, a veteran chemistry professor also worked for a Chinese university and rose to be a vice president of that school in 2017.

He told none of this to his bosses at UF. Nor did he tell the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. government agency that had awarded the professor numerous grants over the years.

Known for now as “Faculty 1,” his story is part of a legislative report obtained Tuesday by the Tampa Bay Times that contains explosive new information about the widening investigation into foreign interference in the nation’s academic research. Tampa’s Moffitt Cancer Center in December ousted six employees, including its CEO, over ties to Chinese recruitment programs, making it two respected Florida institutions that now have been ensnared by the inquiry.

The latest report, provided by UF, details the reasons behind the recent forced resignations of two faculty members and the firing of a third at the school. The document went to the Florida House’s Select Committee on the Integrity of Research Institutions, chaired by Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor.

The report details how the faculty members participated in Chinese recruitment programs, worked directly for Chinese research institutions and accepted research grants from China — all without the required disclosures to UF or the federal officials approving their grant money.

The university did not release the names of the faculty members, saying the matter is “still subject to ongoing federal investigation.”

RELATED: University of Florida also a target in foreign research scandal

Faculty 1, who had worked as a professor of chemistry at UF since 1995, was the vice president at a Chinese university for two years and had been actively employed there for nearly a decade before his American employer became aware of it. He also had been affiliated with a second Chinese university since 2017 as the dean of an institute, the report stated.

The faculty member received at least four grants from Chinese science foundations and ran his own lab in the country. The report said he may have had other business interests, including a consulting company for research services, that were never disclosed to UF or the National Institutes of Health.

He also had co-authors on published, NIH-funded research with foreign affiliations, the report said. When the NIH alerted the university to Faculty 1′s activities in January 2019, the school launched an internal investigation and the professor resigned.

Another faculty member — an associate professor of biomedical engineering — also was the target of an NIH inquiry last year, for failure to disclose affiliations with foreign institutions or foreign sources of funding. Known as “Faculty 2” in UF’s investigative report, this person founded, co-owned and served as CEO of a China-based company while working for UF. He was recruited into China’s Thousand Talents Program in 2017, which may have included an undisclosed financial stipend, the report said. He began working for UF in 2014 and resigned when confronted with the investigation.

A third faculty member had worked part-time in the College in Medicine since 2012 and also was a postdoctoral associate and student at UF. The report found that “Faculty 3” had held a full-time appointment at a Chinese university since at least 2017 and participated in a Chinese recruitment program. He also received at least one grant from the Chinese government and did not disclose any of this information to UF or the NIH.

The university investigated Faculty 3 on its own and he was fired in December.

A fourth university employee, who worked in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, was not included in the report, but left amid similar allegations, a university spokesman said. That person resigned before the university could begin to properly investigate, said Rep. Erin Grall, R-Vero Beach, during the House select committee’s first meeting Tuesday.

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 UF President W. Kent Fuchs outlined in a letter to U.S. Sen. Rick Scott.

Armed with thousands of pages of documents from UF and Moffitt Cancer Center, the select committee’s goal is to develop ways to safeguard Florida’s research institutions and intellectual property from foreign interests like China.

“This is the first time a state legislature has decided to ask what role they play in this,” Sprowls said during the inaugural meeting. “We are a target-rich environment because of the great research happening in our state.”

He said the committee’s goal is to get the bottom of what transpired. “How does this happen? How does money change hands? Who approaches who? When people do bad things, they don’t typically fill out disclosure forms.”

RELATED: Top Moffitt Cancer Center doctors failed to disclose payments from China, report says

On Friday, Moffitt’s board of directors released a nine-page investigative summary to committee members and the public. It details how six Moffitt employees — including its CEO Dr. Alan List and head of research, Thomas Sellers — were forced to resign over not disclosing their recruitment into China’s Thousand Talents program by a fellow employee, biochemist Dr. Sheng Wei.

In addition to Grall, the House committee is made up of state representatives Tom Leek, Fentrice Driskell, Bruce Antone, Colleen Burton, Brad Drake, Joseph Geller, Blaise Ingoglia, Cary Pigman, Sharon Pritchett and William Cloud Robinson Jr.

Like Sen. Rick Scott, Sprowls is requesting more information from all Florida universities and research institutions. They have a deadline of Jan. 31 to respond. In a Jan. 10 letter written to Scott, the University of Central Florida’s Interim President, Thad Seymour Jr., detailed vague examples of foreign influence at the Orlando university.

“Some of these instances involved undisclosed affiliations with Chinese-funded talent programs,” Seymour’s letter reads. “In an instance where unauthorized sharing of information was determined to be willful non-compliance, the university took the appropriate disciplinary action of terminating the employee. In two instances where it was determined that the unauthorized disclosure was accidental or unknowing, employees were provided additional education and training, and UCF was cleared by the federal agency.”

The university did not immediately respond to questions about the details of its investigations.

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