The Florida House will investigate “Chinese meddling in taxpayer-funded research” following a series of resignations at the Moffitt Cancer Center, a research nonprofit created by the Legislature in 1981 at the University of South Florida in Tampa.
House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, said he will convene a select committee to examine allegations that surfaced in an internal Moffitt Center probe that documented collaboration between its staff and Chinese institutions seeking to influence, compromise and steal study findings.
Moffitt President/CEO Alan List, Director Timothy Sellers and four researchers suddenly resigned on Dec. 18 after the probe indicated they had violated conflict of interest guidelines through personal involvement with a Chinese initiative to recruit researchers from American and European universities and companies.
The center’s review examined staff members’ participation in China's "Thousand Talents" program, which recruits global researchers and academics. It has turned its results over to state and federal agencies
"At Moffitt, we pride ourselves not only on our life-saving research and world-class patient care, but also on transparency and integrity among all our employees,” Moffitt Board Chairman Timothy Adams said a statement. The resignations are “an unfortunate but necessary decision.”
With “the recent revelations of Chinese meddling in Florida taxpayer-funded research, as well as wrongdoing on the part of leadership at the Moffitt Cancer Center,” Oliva said he would commission “a select committee to investigate any further improper or illegal activities involving Florida’s research universities, medical research facilities, and individuals associated with such institutions.”
Alleged Chinese infiltration of U.S. universities and research centers has been a concern for more than a decade. Moffitt is among federal grant recipients urged by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to determine if foreign entities, primarily Chinese, are attempting to access their research.
In February 2018, FBI Director Christopher Wray told the Senate Intelligence Committee that China has placed operatives and spies at universities, “whether its professors, scientists, students.”
“Floridians, and all Americans, should be greatly concerned at both the potential theft of intellectual property and the corruption it implies. Compromising our public health and research institutions puts all of us at risk,” Oliva said. “The Florida House will do everything in our power to hold people, and institutions, accountable.”
The select committee will be chaired by Rules Committee Chairman and House Speaker Designate Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Clearwater, and “will have broad jurisdiction to investigate, introduce legislation, and make reports … for further action,” Oliva said.
In a tweet following the Moffitt resignations, Sprowls called center leadership’s actions “indefensible.”
“To accept vast sums of public money – state and federal – and then have the CEO and other employees secretly accepting money from China violates the public trust,” Sprowls wrote. “We need to take a hard look at what is going on at Florida’s research institutions that receive public money. We cannot allow China or other foreign governments to covertly exploit American research paid for by American taxpayers."
The House investigation was lauded by Sen. Rick Scott, who also praised Moffitt for conducting the probe and exposing staff members with “improper and undisclosed relationships with the Chinese government” through its "Thousand Talents" program.
The former governor in December noted the U.S. Senate’s Homeland Security Committee has determined the "Thousand Talents" program is a front group that “incentivizes individuals engaged in research and development in the United States to transmit the knowledge and research they gain here to China in exchange for salaries, research funding, lab space, and other incentives.”
“We should all be very concerned about the threat of Communist China and its attempts to steal U.S. research and intellectual property,” Scott said in a statement. “We have to remain vigilant and proactive, and I will to continue to work with universities, hospitals and businesses to make sure they are protected.”
In a Dec. 4 letter to the state’s 12 university presidents, Scott asked that they report to his office any faculty or researchers who have participated in China’s “talent recruitment plans” or who may be involved in working for “foreign entities.”