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University of Florida researchers pressured to destroy COVID-19 data, told not to criticize DeSantis: report

Researchers at the University of Florida allegedly felt pressured to delete COVID-19 data while working on a study for an undisclosed state entity, according to a report released on Monday by the Faculty Senate committee. 

The report stated that staff felt “external pressure to destroy” data and “barriers to accessing and analyzing” data in a timely manner.

The document added that staff said there were “barriers to publication of scientific research which inhibited the ability of faculty to contribute scientific findings during a world-wide pandemic.”

Other challenges reported to the committee included “palpable reticence and even fear on the part of faculty to speak up on these issues.” In addition, faculty “often engaged in self-censorship and chose not to ‘rock the boat’ for fear of retaliation,” according to the report. 

University of Florida employees were reportedly told “not to criticize the Governor of Florida [Republican Ron DeSantis] or UF policies related to COVID-19 in media interactions.”

However, the Faculty Senate committee said that they “did not have the resources or the time to fully investigate these reports or their legal and policy implications. Faculty did express discontent about political interference with our mission, that academic freedom is under attack, and that we will likely lose faculty as a result.”

The six-person panel was convened to investigate academic freedom issues after the university decided to bar three professors from testifying in a federal lawsuit against the state over a recently enacted elections bill.

A spokesperson from the University of Florida did not have any further comment on the report when reached for additional information by The Hill. 

A spokesperson for DeSantis told The Hill that “The report referenced contains plenty of unsourced allegations and innuendo, but zero evidence that Governor DeSantis or anyone connected to the governor’s office has exerted or attempted to exert improper influence on UF. This is because it did not happen.”

A fourth University of Florida professor alleged in November that the school rejected his request to testify against state leaders and provide his expertise on the impact of COVID-19 on children.

Jeffrey L. Goldhagen, a University of Florida professor and pediatrician, was asked to testify against DeSantis, the Florida commissioner of education, the Florida Department of Education and the Florida Board of Education for a case in which Florida parents and children sought to overturn the state’s ban on mask mandates in schools.

However, after he submitted conflict-of-interest disclosures to the university, his requests to testify were denied.

Faculty also expressed concern over funding being pulled if the university’s activities didn’t align with the DeSantis administration, the Tampa Bay Times reported

“We knew there was more silencing and pressure coming from above. The Big Above. There was grave concern about retaliation and a sense that anyone who objected to the state of affairs might lose his or her job or be punished in some way,” Danaya Wright, a constitutional law professor and former Faculty Senate chairperson, told The Tampa Bay Times on Tuesday. 

“COVID research, it is life and death to not be able to do your job,” Wright continued. “To have your research that you’ve trained for so many years to be able to do, to have that research tabled, put on the shelf and ignored and not get it out there to the academic community to get it out there and see if it’s going to do any good.”

University of Florida spokeswoman Hessy Fernandez previously told The Hill that the university has “a long track record of supporting free speech and our faculty’s academic freedom.”

DeSantis recently signed legislation aimed at curbing vaccine mandates for several groups of employees. 

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