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Florida legislature questions security of university research

Florida

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (Cap News) – The Florida State House set up a select legislative committee after six cancer researchers were fired from the Moffitt Cancer Center late last year for failing to disclose their ties to China.

The committee was told Tuesday that most universities rely on self-reporting of conflicts.

Tuesday also happened to be “Gator Day” in Tallahassee. One of the first things University of Florida President Kent Fuchs bragged about to onlookers was how much research money is coming into the university.

“It went up seven percent over any past record – $929 million. Our goal is a billion dollars,” Fuchs said.

Research at Florida universities is a multi-billion dollar business. But state lawmakers want to know how the universities are protecting their work.

“To deal with potential foreign meddling in our research institutions,” Rep. Chris Sprowls (R-Clearwater) explained.

The University of Central Florida has seen one researcher indicted and another flee to China.

“We were very engaged with the FBI,” UCF Vice President of Ethics and Compliance Rhonda Bishop said.

Since the 2016 arrest, the institution has developed a list of red flags.

“Are they potentially receiving funding from a foreign government? Are there undisclosed affiliations with foreign entities?” Bishop said.

While the chairman would not let the question about ongoing investigations be answered in public, he invited committee members to inspect documents privately.

Whether there’ll be legislation this year remains an open question, but we’ve been told securing research will be a multi-year effort.

The reason? It’s complicated.

“I think most of us think if somebody is involved in a secret agreement with a foreign county that they work with and they haven’t told us, that certainly they could get fired,” Rep. Sprowls said. “I think the universities say ‘well if there’s tenure, we have to go through this process.’ That’s a problem.”

But perhaps not for much longer.

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