The University of Central Florida became the third institution to face inquiry from state lawmakers into its researchers’ ties to China.
The House Select Committee on the Integrity of Research Institutions held a meeting Tuesday to hear from UCF officials on what was done in their investigations, some dating back as far as 2017, and what the next steps are to avoid illegal foreign intervention in the future.
Rhonda Bishop, Vice President for Compliance and Risk at UCF, presented the university’s findings, speaking on the specific cases and pointing out the “red flags” spotted after the fact that the university will use in future vetting processes before hiring researchers.
Four researchers at UCF resigned over the past two years because of their ties in China. The select committee is also looking into Chinese ties to researchers at Moffitt Cancer Center and the University of Florida.
Bishop spoke on four specific cases, including Dr. Zinzhang Wu, who was employed by UCF in 1999 and was conducting research on a silent motor using magnets. UCF found in its investigation that he was meeting with a Chinese university about his research.
Wu did not disclose the meeting to the university or any possible involvement from the Chinese university. He failed to appear in a meeting with UCF’s compliance and risk department in May of 2018, resigned and fled the country.
Bishop detailed in the meeting how the investigation was carried out.
“At that point, we met with the FBI, Homeland Security and the Department of Commerce and worked with them,” she said. “We were working with them from almost the beginning to get ahead of this issue.”
Bishop also spoke of enhancing UCF’s training to make sure researchers are fully aware of the risks and legality of their involvement with foreign entities. She said that training was already being conducted during the years of supposed foreign meddling, but “retention (to the training) is another problem,” and sometimes researchers don’t know what is right and wrong with involvement with international institutions.
“What we really want our employees to learn is that if you’re not sure, ask the question before you engage,” she said. “… I think this is where all universities are doing a little catch up as this issue continues to grow.”
The Select Committee, headed by Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, began its inquiries in January when it looked into similar instances at the University of Florida and Moffitt Cancer Center.
Moffitt provided the committee with the results of its investigation, which showed some researchers failed to disclose payments with China. According to the report, each doctor set up a Chinese bank account where their personal compensation payments would be deposited.
The Moffitt researchers received payments and research support from the Chinese Tianjin Medical University Cancer Institute and Hospital, agreeing to allot their time to the activities that conflicted with the time required at Moffitt.
The investigation resulted in the resignations of CEO Alan List, the center’s director Tom Sellers and four researchers: Dr. Sheng Wei, Dr. Howard McLeod, Dr. Dan Sullivan and Dr. Pearlie K. Epling-Burnette. All six at Moffitt had been participating in the “Thousand Talents” program, used by China for more than a decade to recruit global researchers and academics.
Sellers is suing Moffitt for defamation, claiming that he was not involved in the Thousand Talents program and he never received any money from it.
No charges have been filed against the six scientists who were forced to resign from Moffitt. According to the center, there was no evidence that intellectual property was stolen or that research or patient care was compromised.