The University of Florida told a Florida House of Representatives committee that faculty members it investigated had undisclosed affiliations, funding from China.
A University of Florida chemistry professor who worked in Gainesville for 24 years simultaneously served as vice president of a Chinese university, got federal funding from China and ran a business — all without UF’s knowledge.
Florida House representatives discussed this person, identified only as “Faculty 1,” and two other former faculty members at a Tuesday meeting of the recently created Select Committee on the Integrity of Research Institutions in Tallahassee.
The committee’s 12 representatives addressed at the meeting the issue of undisclosed foreign influence on research institutions, including at UF. The group also discussed similar issues concerning Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, which has been under scrutiny after its former president/CEO and center director resigned for violations of conflict of interest rules through work in China.
Multiple committee members did not respond to or declined requests for comment.
In Gainesville, four faculty members have left the state’s flagship university after UF and the National Institutes of Health found possible ties to foreign institutions that are not in line with funding and research rules.
Rep. Erin Grall, R-Vero Beach, said during the meeting that serious risks are associated with employing faculty who do not share such information with the research institution and funding sources.
She said shortly after UF began looking into suspected faculty members, members of the research team received suspicious phone calls and had issues with computers being “fried,” possibly as a threat tactic.
“The vulnerabilities certainly continue to exist,” Grall said.
UF spokesman Steve Orlando confirmed the events occurred.
The worry among universities and their large-scale research funders is that researchers might use their connection to a U.S. institution to illegally sell or share intellectual property by relaying confidential information with foreign businesses or governments.
Several universities have returned grant money as a result of such undisclosed affiliations being uncovered. Orlando said UF has not done so.
The NIH first reached out to universities across the nation in August 2018 with a letter that expressed concerns about foreign entities trying to influence U.S. research. The NIH later identified two UF faculty who may have been connected. Through the university’s own assessments, two additional faculty members raised concerns.
Three faculty members — two from the College of Engineering and one from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences — resigned, and one part-time College of Medicine faculty member was terminated.
More information about three of these faculty members became public at the committee meeting.
Faculty 1 had been employed at UF since 1995, according to information provided to the committee.
In addition to serving as the vice president at a China university since at least 2017, Faculty 1 was the director of an institute at a different Chinese university, the document said.
While conducting research at UF, Faculty 1 served as the principal investigator for one NIH-funded project, the document said.
None of Faculty 1′s foreign affiliations was reported to UF nor the NIH.
“Faculty 2” joined UF in 2014 as an associate professor of biomedical engineering, the document said.
A letter from the NIH from January 2019 suggested Faculty 2, who studied biomedical image computing and informatics, may have undisclosed affiliations. Further investigations by UF showed Faculty 2 applied to and was accepted into the 2017 class of the Chinese Thousand Talents program, the document said.
Faculty 2 had also been the principal investigator on one active NIH-funded grant prior to their resignation as well as a part-owner and CEO of a China-based business. UF did not find any evidence of Faculty 2 having received foreign awards. Faculty 2 resigned from UF.
“Faculty 3” joined UF as a postdoctoral associate in the College of Medicine, and was appointed as a part-time research associate professor in 2012. The researcher focused on virology, gene therapy and traditional Chinese medicine.
Faculty 3 was the principal investigator on one NIH-funded project and co-principal investigator for a second project prior to termination. That faculty member received an undisclosed grant from China, had an appointment at a Chinese university since 2017 and received a Chinese Thousand Talents award.
UF did not disclose additional information regarding the fourth faculty member from the College of Engineering believed to have been involved, who also resigned following investigations. Orlando said in an email that the university only addressed direct questions asked by the committee.
Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, said during the meeting that learning about these instances of potential foreign influence has sounded an alarm for institutions to ensure tax dollars used for research are used as intended. Transparency among the institutions is key to avoiding further conflicts, she said.
“That’s how we as a committee avoid venturing into alarmism and make sure that we adhere to our roles of being finders of fact,” Driskell said.
Since 2018, UF has hired a director of conflicts and developed a new electronic system where faculty can disclose affiliations, which are then reviewed for approval by the conflicts team.
Orlando said in a prepared statement that UF is committed to nondiscrimination and that its policies are intended to target specific behaviors, rather than nations or people.
“Our campus remains an open and welcoming place to students, faculty and staff from around the world and of every race and ethnicity,” he said.
Marc Raimondi, a national security spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice, said in a prepared statement that China is implicated in more than 80% of all economic espionage charges brought by the department since 2012. Chinese citizens are also widely charged in trade secret theft cases pursued by the department, he said.
Part of the department’s China Initiative includes educating universities about potential threats to academic freedom and open discourse from foreign influence efforts on campus.
In August 2019, an associate professor from the University of Kansas was indicted on federal charges for hiding the fact that he was a full-time employee at a Chinese university while doing research in the U.S. funded by the federal government. Feng “Franklin” Tao faces charges that include one count of wire fraud and three counts of program fraud.
UF declined to comment on whether it will take legal action against faculty it investigated.
More information on UF’s current policies on the disclosure of international relationships and activities to UF and federal agencies can be found on UF’s research website, www.research.ufl.edu.