Legislators should take long view on China ties to Moffitt, UF | Editorial
A special House committee should keep digging and not rush to propose reforms before the legislative session ends in March.
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 Feb. 12, 2020

How does Florida prevent foreign governments from using their academic collaborations at state research institutions as cover for stealing American research? A state legislative committee this week continued to explore that difficult question following the revelations of secret Chinese payments to researchers at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa and the University of Florida. The exchanges between lawmakers and officials from research institutions reflected a balanced regard for the value of these ties and the need to protect intellectual property and national security.

As the Tampa Bay Times’ Justine Griffin reported, the session Monday was the second for a Florida House select committee in the wake of recent federal investigations into the Chinese meddling that has shaken Moffitt Cancer Center and UF. Six Moffitt employees, including its former chief executive, were forced to resign in December after failing to disclose their full involvement in a Chinese research program. At UF, three faculty members resigned and another was terminated after the university was notified of questionable foreign meddling in grant research. The committee, chaired by Rep. Chis Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, is exploring the issue and is expected to develop proposals to better safeguard Florida institutions.

To that end, Monday’s meeting was another introductory step in addressing this complex and growing problem. The special agent in charge of the FBI’s field office in Tampa, Michael McPherson, broadly outlined the threat posed by China’s Thousand Talents recruitment programs, which aim to boost China’s competitiveness by aligning Chinese researchers with foreign talent. While McPherson underscored that China is not alone in exploiting these exchanges, he warned the Chinese “are the most prolific" in stealing and patenting American research.

Academic espionage is not new, but federal investigators and scientific agencies are increasingly warning about foreign nations poaching on U.S.-financed research. In a 2018 report on the subject by the National Institutes of Health, one of the largest funding sources for medical research in the world, authorities noted that foreign governments “have mounted systematic programs” to take advantage of these relationships. A study for the National Science Foundation issued in December encouraged the United States to maintain these global ties. But it noted that American academics and government officials alike were partly blind to these espionage activities, and it urged a range of measures to better preserve the integrity of U.S.-sponsored research.

Moffitt demonstrated good faith and restored some of its credibility with lawmakers by refunding $1 million to the state last week that had been used to pay several scientists tied to the China investigation. The House committee also heard from UF officials about how they are improving their protocols for researchers to disclose their outside activities and financial interests.

Moffitt and UF should continue to provide legislators and taxpayers a more complete picture of what happened. The FBI says it wants a closer working relationship with state officials, which is appropriate provided it properly balances the value of these global scientific exchanges and the rights of academic freedom. The House committee could provide helpful guidance going forward, and the state has an obvious interest in protecting its sponsored research. The committee should not feel compelled to propose far-reaching reforms this late in the legislative session. This discussion should be methodical, the FBI is continuing its investigation, and research institutions across the state are on notice to be more vigilant and protective of research that taxpayers are subsidizing.

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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