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UCF boosts foreign influence protections as House continues probe

Four researchers have resigned or been fired amid investigations.

University of Central Florida Vice President for Compliance and Risk Rhonda Bishop explained during a House Select Committee on the Integrity of Research Institutions meeting Tuesday how her school handled incidents of faculty researchers partnering with foreign entities on restricted research and how the school is addressing future foreign interference threats.

The school has revised its disclosure policies and procedures regarding external partnerships and has worked with the FBI to establish a robust list of “red flags” to identify early on potential research integrity breaches.

House Speaker Jose Oliva launched the committee in response to situations at two Florida research institutions, Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa and the University of Florida in Gainesville. UCF later learned it had its own problems.

Four faculty members either resigned or were terminated in cases of potential foreign involvement between February 2017 and August 2018. One, Zinzhang Wu, resigned and then fled the country.

The four former faculty members also worked with research entities in China.

Concerns about China’s potential exploitation of American research has reached a fever pitch. Investigations now include the National Institutes of Health, which serves as a major funding source for medical research.

Rep. Chris Sprowls, incoming House Speaker and committee chair, praised UCF for being forthcoming with their work improving possible foreign protections and for being transparent with the committee in its ongoing probe.

“We very much appreciate the work of you and your staff,” Sprowls said after Bishop presented information about the university’s compliance improvements.

Those improvements include increasing communication about the threat of foreign influence and education on disclosure requirements, amending the school’s review process to ensure federal requirements regarding China’s talent program are met, implementing a talent program questionnaire and continuing risk assessments and investigations where appropriate.

The school also established a series of red flags including a researcher’s affiliation with an entity designated a threat to national security, faculty members hosting visiting scholars, indications of ties to a foreign talent program, receipt of foreign awards or appointments to a foreign university, foreign government funding, undisclosed affiliations with foreign universities, entities or individuals or unexplained sources of financial support.

Bishop also answered a host of questions about her department’s ongoing efforts.

Rep. Erin Grall asked how the university vets secondary researchers. Bishop said the school is now using its red flags and updated disclosure process to vet all researchers, including those who might not be full-time faculty, a process that had not been as robust previously.

Answering a question posed by Rep. Bruce Antone, Bishop explained how researchers can share information with partnering experts, which is sometimes required under federal grant programs. Bishop said any sort of fundamental research is inbounds for sharing, but researchers handling classified or export-controlled research, that which poses a potential national security threat, cannot be shared.

In cases where a third party researcher shares protected research, the university would be at liberty to take legal action against that person under nondisclosure agreements.

On the issue of educating faculty and other non-faculty university researchers, Bishop said the school is continuing to provide updated information.

“So a researcher saying ‘I didn’t know’ is not a reasonable response,” Sprowls asked.

Bishop said that while she would like to “automatically draw that conclusion,” “what we have found is that’s not always the case and sometimes we have to go in and do additional education.”

Rep. Joe Geller, understanding Bishop could not provide details, asked whether the university had any ongoing investigations into potential foreign influence or interference in its research activities. Interjecting, Sprowls asked Bishop not to answer the question.

Janelle Irwin Taylor has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in Tampa Bay since 2003. Most recently, Janelle reported for the Tampa Bay Business Journal. She formerly served as senior reporter for WMNF News. Janelle has a lust for politics and policy. When she’s not bringing you the day’s news, you might find Janelle enjoying nature with her husband, children and two dogs. You can reach Janelle at Janelle@floridapolitics.com.

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