September 24, 2021

Florida state legislator fears overreaction in probe of foreign research ties

Florida state Representative Joseph Geller (D)

Steve Cannon/AP

Florida state Representative Joseph Geller (D) wants to know how many publicly funded Florida scientists have links to Chinese institutions that they haven’t disclosed. But after six scientists from the University of Florida (UF) and the Moffitt Cancer Center were dismissed recently because they hid such relationships, Geller hopes the Republican-led panel on which he serves doesn’t simply propose outlawing such foreign collaborations.

“Do I think they should get a Lasker [Prize]?” Geller asks about the ousted scientists, referring to a major biomedical research award. “No. But we need some context, too, especially when you’re talking about researchers who live and die on funding” from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

“If all the researchers did was make a mistake, they should be punished—maybe a suspension or something,” Geller says. “But I don’t think we want to permanently deprive ourselves of their talents. I think we have a shortage of such dedicated researchers.”

The special legislative panel on which Geller serves was created on 30 December 2019 by Jose Oliva (R), speaker of the Florida House of Representatives. It is tasked with examining “the integrity” of the state’s research institutions. Florida is the only state to take such a step, which parallels an expanding federal effort to understand the scope of foreign influence. Last week, that effort resulted in the arrest of three Boston-area researchers, including Charles Lieber, a prominent Harvard University nanoscientist. The Florida panel convened on 21 January and will hold its second session tomorrow.

A familiarity with science

A three-term legislator from Broward County in southern Florida, the 65-year-old Geller is a lawyer, not a scientist. “But I used to be married to an NIH-funded scientist, and I’ve edited my share of peer-reviewed articles,” he says, referring to his ex-wife, Deborah Mash, a neuroscientist at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. Mash is known for her work with noribogaine, the psychoactive metabolite of the controlled substance ibogaine, to treat opioid addiction.

In contrast, Geller says, most of his colleagues aren’t familiar with the federal grantmaking process. He worries that their ignorance could make it harder to carry out their duties.

“Most people [in the Florida legislature] have no idea about the nature and purpose of basic research and what it means to be funded by NIH,” Geller says. “I know how competitive the process is, and how dedicated you have to be.”

One frequent misconception, Geller says, is confusing a time conflict with a financial conflict. A U.S.-based scientist who spends significant amounts of time in China when they are supposed to be working at their Florida institution might be guilty of a conflict of commitment if their employer hasn’t agreed to the arrangement, he says. But that’s less serious in Geller’s eyes than a potential conflict of interest, which occurs when a scientist allows a funder to influence research results.

“If a cancer researcher has been working for peanuts for years, on federal grants, and then someone offers them $35,000 to spend a few months in a Chinese lab, working with state-of-the-art equipment, is that a national tragedy?” Geller asks rhetorically. “I don’t think so.”

“Most of the biomedical researchers I know are doing it in hopes of improving our quality of life or curing diseases,” he says. “And even if there is the chance of commercializing the research, any patents you receive are publicly available.”

Geller also thinks it is wrong to equate the failure to disclose research ties with espionage, that is, secretly passing along information that could jeopardize national security. “So, what exactly is secret?” he asks about the research being undertaken at a federally funded medical institution like Moffitt and then published in publicly accessible journals. “If it’s not directly related to our nation’s defense, I don’t see the problem.”

Talking to Tallahassee

Geller says he “has great confidence” that the committee’s chairman, Chris Sprowls (R), will move quickly “to gather the facts of what happened.” To that end, Sprowls has asked for reports from all of the state’s research universities and has already posted redacted versions of the investigations by Moffitt and UF. And even if the panel decides “that the situation is not as terrible as some fear,” Geller says he hopes the committee will take up what can be done to ensure that researchers follow the rules regarding disclosure of any ties to foreign entities.

Although he is a member of the minority party, Geller doesn’t expect the committee’s two-to-one ratio of Republicans to Democrats to distort its work. “I haven’t seen any evidence that this as a partisan issue,” he says.

Geller believes Florida scientists also have a role to play. “They should make sure that legislators understand what research is and how science is done,” he says, making an explicit call for scientists to contact the legislature, now halfway through its 2-month session in Tallahassee. “Remember, that process is a complete mystery to most of them.”

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