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  • Emily Mavrakis, Florida Headline News

UF: Former faculty did not disclose China affiliations

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.

Nondisclosure of relationships with international universities to U.S. institutions is against grant-funding rules. Some of these researchers are also believed to have connections to foreign talents programs. The NIH provided UF with more than $208 million in grant money in 2019.

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.


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