A few days ago Eric linked to a report by Lori Gruen (Ethics and Animals blog here; Wesleyan University website here) on the renewal of cruel maternal deprivation research on primates. The comments on Eric's post were such that we asked Lori to write a guest post for us. She graciously agreed; the post follows: [UPDATED 1:40 pm 16 Oct. See below for contact info for Madison's Provost.]
PAINFUL SCIENTIFIC FOOLISHNESS
“Major steps in scientific progress are sometimes followed closely by outbursts of foolishness. New discoveries have a way of exciting the imagination of the well-meaning and misguided, who see theoretical potentialities in new knowledge that may prove impossible to attain.” – Dr. Sherwin Nuland, Yale School of Medicine
Does the system we have in place to curtail scientific “outbursts of foolishness” and protect research subjects from “misguided” scientific curiosity work?
There was no oversight system in place back in the days when Harry Harlow’s experiments psychologically tormenting baby monkeys were making news. Surely that sort of horrible work in which infant primates are taken from their mothers to make them crazy wouldn’t be approved of today. On my recent visit to the University of Wisconsin I was shocked to learn otherwise. The oversight committee chairs told me they have never rejected a proposal. Not one.
And one of the protocols they did not reject is a renewal of maternal deprivation research. Disturbingly, it has been approved by not one, but two oversight committees. A psychiatry professor who has a distinguished record of research on anxiety disorders plans to separate more monkey babies from their mothers, leave them with wire “surrogates” covered in cloth (a practice developed by Harlow) to emulate “adverse early rearing conditions,” then pair them with another maternally deprived infant after 3-6 weeks of being alone. The infants will then be exposed to fearful conditions. The monkeys in this group and another group of young monkeys who will be reared with their mothers, will then be killed and their brains examined. (The experimental protocol is here.)
We believe that a well-designed plan to provide for psychological well-being should … include
- Appropriate social companionship.
- Opportunities to engage in behavior related to foraging, exploration, and other activities appropriate to the species, age, sex, and condition of the animals.
- Housing that permits suitable postural and locomotor expression.
- Interactions with personnel that are generally positive and not a source of unnecessary stress.
- Freedom from unnecessary pain and distress.
Clearly this new maternal deprivation research at Madison fails to promote the psychological well-being of the infant primates, indeed it is actually designed to undermine it.
The AWA allows exemptions for scientific reasons if they are approved by an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) (another of the 1985 AWA amendments required such committees be established). So one might imagine that an oversight committee would set the bar pretty high for such exemptions, given the negative attention the research would garner and the pain and suffering it would cause. One would hope ACUCs would want to be assured that there is a high likelihood that tangible scientific benefits would result from harmful research.
This doesn’t appear to be what happened at UW. Indeed, the research in question is described by one member of the ACUC as “basic science.” In the minutes of one of the meetings of the oversight committee (here) the chair of the committee (a veterinarian) is reported to have said that he “is unsure if the ACUC has the right to tell a PI not to do their research because the research may cause harm. The ACUC frequently approves protocols that will have adverse effects on animals.”
Another senior program veterinarian who was invited to the meeting noted that in other cases when exemptions are permitted “specific therapeutic or preventative endpoints can be identified and reached, but in these studies endpoints are less clear.” Also in the minutes the veterinarian noted, “the behavioral damage to the animals from this type of study is already well-known."
The chair of the committee again said he was unsure whether it was the role of the oversight committee to question NIH-approved scientific research. But NIH funding requires IACUC approval first. So what is going on?
The IACUC is supposed to independently determine whether the minimal standards of the AWA are being met. Then NIH decides whether the work is scientifically justified, and NIH review panels tend to defer to the institutional ACUCs approvals. If the ACUC is deferring to NIH or, even worse, to the PI, what oversight role are these committees playing?
A biased one is, as Lawrence Hansen has recently suggested, too prone to “groupthink.” In a study he recently published, Hansen found a 98% approval rate for in-house research protocols, and, when those same proposals were given to committees at other institutions 61% were thought to be problematic in some way. This line by Hansen from a recent news report sums up his view: "The fact is, IACUCs as they are set up today will approve virtually anything."
What does this say about the ethicists who serve on these oversight committees?
Paul M. DeLuca, Jr. / Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs / University of Wisconsin–Madison / 150 Bascom Hall / 500 Lincoln Drive / Madison, WI 53706 / Tel: 608-262-1304 / Fax: 608-265-3324 / E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org