Keep probing China’s connections to Florida’s research institutions | Editorial
The secret jobs and payments provided by China to researchers at the University of Florida and Moffitt Cancer Center are greater than initially reported. A House committee should keep investigating.
The entrance to Moffit Cancer Center in Tampa.
The entrance to Moffit Cancer Center in Tampa. [ Courtesy of Moffitt Cancer Center ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Jan. 24, 2020

The more public revelations about China’s secret jobs and payments for researchers and faculty members at the University of Florida and Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, the more concern rises about how this subterfuge occurred and the potential consequences. A special legislative committee should keep digging and asking questions in an investigation that should be open and transparent. Florida taxpayers need to be reassured they are not inadvertently subsidizing and enabling the theft of intellectual property by a foreign country that plays by different rules.

Documents released by the Florida House’s Select Committee on the Integrity of Research Institutions chaired by Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, reveal deeper secret ties to China at both UF and Moffitt than were initially apparent when the relationships first became public. The institutions say they investigated the relationships, severed ties with the researchers and faculty members, and are implementing reforms. They say no intellectual property was compromised or stolen through the China connections. To borrow a phrase from President Ronald Reagan, federal and state investigators should trust but verify.

At the University of Florida, documents show a veteran chemistry professor secretly worked for a Chinese university for nearly a decade and was vice president there for two years. He also had other ties to China, including his own lab and possibly other business interests. UF apparently did not know any of this until it was alerted by the National Institutes of Health in January 2019, and the professor resigned after an internal investigation. How did this China connection go unnoticed for years in Gainesville?

At least two other UF employees, an associate professor of biomedical engineering and an employee in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, have resigned because of their undisclosed China ties. Another part-time faculty member in the College of Medicine was fired in December following a university investigation. The university has not released the names, citing ongoing federal investigations. But the public deserves to know the names and more details as soon as possible.

At Moffitt, CEO Alan List and five other Moffitt employees were forced to resign in December after failing to disclose payments or their full involvement in the Thousand Talents Program. China uses that program to recruit experts by using financial incentives in exchange for collaborating on research and other activities, and the National Institutes of Health suggests the program is aimed at getting U.S. talent to share scientific information and expertise for that country’s own benefit. Documents indicate the extent of the Chinese involvement and the potential financial benefits to the Moffitt researchers were greater than it appeared when the news first broke last month.

For example, Dr. Sheng Wei collaborated closely with List on research and recruited nearly all of the Moffitt participants in the Thousand Talents program -- and none of those were properly disclosed to Moffitt. The Moffitt investigation found Wei received about $300,000 in salary and benefits from China and about $80,000 to help purchase an apartment there. He also helped List and three other Moffitt researchers open bank accounts in China to receive payments that were not disclosed, and List’s account was intended to receive other money besides the Thousand Talents payments.

At both UF and Moffitt, this appears on the surface to be more than scholarly collaboration on research to solve universal challenges and cure cancer. If these relationships were entirely appropriate, why weren’t they disclosed? Why were these researchers accepting money from a foreign country and not reporting it? What was China really getting in return?

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The University of Florida and Moffitt Cancer Center are venerable institutions that are highly ranked nationally and continue to reach even higher. They initiated their own investigations into the China connections and took action. They also receive millions in tax dollars every year, and the House committee is serving a valuable purpose by taking an independent look and broadening the review to cover every research institution. China’s relationship with such institutions is a national issue, and Florida’s substantial investment in ground-breaking research and intellectual property should be protected.

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