The forced resignations of the CEO and five others at H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute in Tampa amid a federal investigation about ties to China leave a stain on a community treasure. The best approach to protecting the institution’s reputation from further damage is more openness about what went wrong. There are plenty of questions that should be answered publicly, and candor can be the salve that preserves the cancer center’s standing and its commitment to groundbreaking research and quality patient care.
As the Tampa Bay Times’ Justine Griffin reported, Moffitt CEO Alan List resigned under pressure Wednesday along with a vice president and director at the cancer center and four of the center’s researchers. The National Institutes of Health is among the federal agencies investigating attempts by China to take advantage of American-financed cancer research. Against that backdrop, Moffitt launched an internal investigation that lasted for months and says it found several "compliance violations'' that led to the resignations of List and the others.
Other than that, there are few public details about what happened. The center says List and the others violated conflict of interest rules through their work in China. List, who has been CEO of Moffitt since 2012, has traveled frequently to China. Moffitt has had a 12-year research and education partnership with Tianjin Medical University Cancer Institute and Hospital outside Beijing. It also collaborates with China’s International Personalized Cancer Center. List and others were personally involved in China’s "Thousands Talents'' program, which recruits researchers and other experts from American universities and companies. It’s appropriate that all of those relationships be reviewed and vetted for conflicts of interest.
The cancer center says the "compliance violations'' were primarily linked to the "Thousands Talents'' program. It says there is no indication that Moffitt research or patient care has been compromised. Both the Tampa Bay community and Florida taxpayers who send millions to Moffitt every year need more than vague assurances. Who performed Moffitt’s investigation? Where is a written report on the findings, which should be public? What are the potential consequences with NIH, which sent more than $36 million in grants this year to Moffitt? What are the details of the problems that led to the resignations?
Here’s one clue. Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, said Thursday, "For these researchers to receive monetary gain from the Chinese government and to pilfer our research, that is just alarming news.'' Later Thursday, Moffitt finally confirmed it "found evidence that people were compensated through the Thousand Talents program and failed to disclose that.” What is the evidence? How much were the payments? Moffitt did not say.
Sprowls, a former assistant state attorney who will be the next House speaker, has been named by House Speaker Jose Oliva to investigate Moffitt and the China connection. That is entirely appropriate, because Moffitt receives more than $15 million a year in state cigarette tax money. Sprowls also reasonably plans to ask other research institutions in Florida about their ties to China, their involvement with the NIH inquiries and their institutional protections for intellectual property.
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The timing of these revelations is particularly unfortunate for Moffitt. It has been gearing up to press the Legislature in January for more tax money to help pay for a new clinical and research hospital in Tampa and eventually a new research campus in Pasco County. It’s a safe bet that proposal is dead in Tallahassee until Moffitt appoints a new CEO and demonstrates it has strengthened standards to protect intellectual property and guard against conflicts of interest.
Moffitt is nationally recognized for its cancer research and serves more than 68,000 patients. It has a strong argument for more public support and more space -- but first it has to get its house in order. Forcing out List and the others is a good first step. The next step should be more openness about what really happened in China. The best disinfectant is candor, and Moffitt should come clean before state lawmakers force it to fess up.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news