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Florida Lawmakers Probe 'Foreign Meddling' in Research

Federal officials have been scrutinizing foreign research ties for evidence of inappropriate influence. Now state lawmakers in Florida will do the same, raising concerns about potentially duplicative oversight.

January 13, 2020
 
Chris Sprowls, Speaker-designate in the Florida House

Florida lawmakers are launching an investigation into the "extent of foreign meddling in taxpayer-funded research" at the state's research institutions, in what seems to be the first inquiry of this sort at a state level. The state-level probe is happening in parallel with similar inquiries by Congress and national research agencies into the threat of intellectual property theft by foreign actors.

Florida’s House Speaker, José R. Oliva, a Republican, announced a new committee that would lead the investigation in December. He cited in his announcement “recent revelations” regarding the freestanding Moffitt Cancer Center.

Moffitt’s CEO and the center director resigned in December for what the cancer center described as “violations of conflict of interest rules through their work in China.” Moffitt said that its compliance review “also prompted separation of four additional researchers.”

Moffitt said it launched its review into researchers' ties with China after the National Institutes of Health warned of efforts by foreign actors to influence or compromise U.S. researchers. The cancer center's review focused on individuals’ participation in the Thousand Talents program, a Chinese government-sponsored recruitment program for scientific talent.

"We don’t want to be in a position where the Florida taxpayer is inadvertently subsidizing research and development for a foreign country," said Chris Sprowls, the Speaker-designate and the chair of the bipartisan committee, which holds its first hearing later this month.

Most taxpayer-funded research dollars flowing into universities come from the federal government, but Sprowls argued that states have an important oversight role.

“These institutions have been created and funded by the state of Florida, so we have an oversight role in making sure that the funds we are investing in these institutions are going to research, are things that are there to benefit Floridians, benefit Americans, and not to subsidize intellectual property development for foreign governments," Sprowls said.

He added, “I think it’s a unique opportunity for the state and federal government to work together, to figure out what is the state in a best position to do that maybe the federal government is not, and try to fill those gaps and come up with a plan that makes sure these institutions have the level of vigilance we want them to have.”

Congressional bodies, federal research agencies and the Federal Bureau of Investigation have all been looking into these issues as well.

In November, a U.S. Senate subcommittee released a report about the Thousand Talents Plan, which it described as one of about 200 talent programs run by the Chinese government 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."

The subcommittee found that some participants in the program "willfully failed to disclose their affiliation with China’s talent recruitment plans to U.S. institutions and U.S. grant-making agencies. In some cases, TTP members received both U.S. grants and Chinese grants for similar research, established 'shadow labs' in China to conduct parallel research, and stole intellectual capital and property. U.S. government agencies also discovered that some TTP members used their access to research information to provide their Chinese employer with important information on early stage research."

The NIH has also been cracking down on researchers for failing to disclose foreign ties. As of October, the agency reported that it had investigated at least 180 scientists at more than 65 institutions for violating policies requiring disclosure of foreign ties. The NIH's investigation also focused on the Thousand Talents Plan.

University officials say they have taken proactive steps in response to concerns voiced by the NIH and other federal agencies. Steve Orlando, a spokesman for the University of Florida, said that the university "maintains a robust and vigilant program to safeguard our technology and intellectual property from undue foreign influence." He said that while "longstanding programs and processes have been in place to manage these challenges," the university has recently taken a number of additional steps in response to concerns from the NIH, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense and members of Congress.

Orlando said these steps include outreach and communication efforts focused on disclosure obligations. Florida also developed a new international risk-assessment process that Orlando said "provides for screening of activities with foreign institutions, as well as an assessment of conflicts of interest or commitment, and provides approval or denial for the activity."

"Since implementing this process, with few exceptions, the university does not approve participation in foreign talent programs as an outside activity," Orlando said.

"Universities really want to do the right thing," said Gary K. Ostrander, the vice president for research at Florida State University. "We want to protect the intellectual property. Faculty develop inventions, they disclose the inventions, the universities get patents. Universities certainly lose if their patents and their technology are disclosed to foreign governments inappropriately, and then there’s no market from any company for their technology. There’s no resistance that I’m aware of on the part of research universities to working with the federal government, with state governments, with anyone that's concerned about this, in a positive and productive way."

"The concern," Ostrander added, "would be that state agencies might be very well intentioned and put in place additional layers of bureaucracy that would perhaps be redundant with what the federal agencies are already doing, and it could make it very hard to do the work, to do the research."

Indeed, as Florida launches its probe, national association leaders warned of potentially duplicative oversight at the state and federal levels.

"As state governments consider their role in supporting public universities in this endeavor, we encourage state legislatures and agencies to carefully consider the guidance and directives that have already been provided by federal agencies, Congress, and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy," said Peter McPherson, the president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities. "We respectfully caution against new state oversight that could be duplicative and conflicting with federal processes."

Tobin Smith, the vice president for policy at the Association of American Universities, said it’s the prerogative of Florida state lawmakers to look into this issue. He added, however, "It would be my hope that they try to understand what is already being done at the federal level, what the universities are doing in this space, and the work that’s happening with key agencies such as NIH and NSF and other funding agencies."

"And the other important point about Moffitt is the system was working effectively," Smith said. "The awareness has been heightened … Going forward I think you will see that researchers will think twice about whether certain relationships are ones they want to enter into."

At the same time, Smith emphasized the value of reciprocal collaborations and the importance of U.S. science continuing to benefit from foreign talent. "I just hope -- like we are encouraging with at the federal level with members of Congress -- that as they look closely at this, they do no harm," he said.

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