The recent firebombing of the homes of two researchers employed at the University of California, Santa Cruz has been covered by a good slice of ScienceBlogs including AinEandS, Respectful Insolence, Terra Sigillata and new Sb blog Built on Facts (which advocates high-noon style armed shootouts, apparently). I have little to add; my outrage about this violent terrorism of people who are trying to help their fellow citizens of this planet Earth through scientific advances is not readily expressed.
Where I think I can contribute is to a recent conversation that arose over at AinEandS in which it became clear that some undergraduate students who may wish to educate themselves on the use of animals in research feel stymied and blown-off by their professors.
I've been having trouble nailing down online sources of information on animal research guidelines, so I would love links if you've got the time. I would prefer someone to sit down with me and talk about it, but every time I ask one of my professors to describe the regulations, I get brushed off and sometimes scientists are actually hostile towards me. Or they look at my skin colour and assume I'm a religious nut who wants to battle them in the name of Ganesh.
This commenter, Samia, then made the following observation at her own blog:
..according to some SB commenters, apparently my membership in an animal rights organization at school means I support terrorism or something. You know, what the f*** ever. What I'm gleaning from this whole thing is that everyone is stupid except me.
We can't have this. Really, we can't. So let us see if this blog can do a little something to redress this situation.
[As a bit of a sidebar here, fair warning. This is a discussion for legitimate actors. For people who in good faith wish to discuss the use of animals in research. I am not putting up with nutjob activists in the comments for one second. Make anything that sounds even vaguely like a threat to any scientist (comments or email) and I am going to PZ you by publishing any details about your identity, IP, etc that are available to me. You want to make an argument, make it. But if you throw off one-liner talking points without a fleshed out argument or citations and refuse to respond to dialog, I may delete you out of the thread. Show a protracted refusal to read the controlling law and regulation, ditto. This thread will be for productive and informative discussion only. Consider yourself warned.]
First, let me give a partial defense to the researchers who are suspicious and actively hostile to some random undergraduate student who approaches them on the topic of animals in research. I know everyone likes to think that they are wonderful, unique and deep thinkers. That they are the whitest of white hats with only the purest intentions in the world and that life should be open to them like a book. To this attitude I recommend that you grow up and get real. Do you really grasp what the UCSC researchers, Edythe London, Dario Ringach and a host of other scientists who got hit by the ARA terrorists in prior incidents went through? Do you really understand the gravity of the situation of coming under attack by activists? It can derail a research program for years and sometimes end careers. Scare the bajeezus out of spouses and other family members. Nobody. Wants. That. Noise. So before you get your back up about how researchers respond poorly to your questions, think about this. Approach professors with whom you have a history so that they know you a little bit. If you belong to some ARA-sounding group, think about how this is going to come off. Finally, do realize that you are not unique. Researchers have seen people like you and your arguments over and over and over again. Their experience is that the vast majority expressing some sort of anti-animal-use perspective are 1) woefully uninformed about the actual use of animals in research and 2) almost entirely resistant to education on the topic.
The place to start educating yourself on the use of animals in research (in the US, apologies to my world-wide readers but this will be US focused) is the Animal Welfare Act first enacted in 1966. The US Department of Agriculture site is a good place to start.
Enacted August 24, 1966, Public Law 89-544 is what commonly is referred to as The Animal Welfare Act although that title is not mentioned within the law. It authorizes the Secretary of Agriculture to regulate transport, sale, and handling of dogs, cats, nonhuman primates, guinea pigs, hamsters, and rabbits intended to be used in research or "for other purposes." It requires licensing and inspection of dog and cat dealers and humane handling at auction sales.
The links on that page seem screwed up, the current version AWA text is here. I say "current version" because the AWA is active, with various updates and amendments being passed over time; this is not a static Federal law.
One important basic place to start is the section on definitions.
The term "animal" means any live or dead dog, cat, monkey (nonhuman primate mammal), guinea pig, hamster, rabbit, or such other warmblooded animal, as the Secretary may determine is being used, or is intended for use, for research, testing, experimentation, or exhibition purposes, or as a pet; but such term excludes (1) birds, rats of the genus Rattus, and mice of the genus Mus, bred for use in research, (2) horses not used for research purposes, and (3) other farm animals, such as, but not limited to livestock or poultry, used or intended for use as food or fiber, or livestock or poultry used or intended for use for improving animal nutrition, breeding, management, or production efficiency, or for improving the quality of food or fiber. With respect to a dog, the term means all dogs including those used for hunting, security, or breeding purposes;
I should note that "birds, rats...mice" were excluded from the provisions of the Act in 2002 via the "Helms Amendment". This most certainly does not mean that research on these species is not regulated and in fact the vast majority of the policies and procedures I will be discussing apply to these species as well because of regulation. Nevertheless, there are times when the regulations are looser on "non USDA species" than they are on the remaining species covered as described above. I will also note that invertebrate animals are not covered and my subsequent remarks do not apply to such popular research species as fruit flies, sea slugs, nematodes, bacteria used in various ways, etc.
The next step in the education process is to familiarize yourself with the USDA's Regulations for Animal Welfare as overseen by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). The regulations are the procedures and interpretations that have been adopted by the USDA under their AWA-directed responsibilities, to oversee animal use in the US, including (but not limited to) use for research purposes. This brings me to our first essential point: The use of animals for research purposes is a (highly) Federally regulated activity. Local research Universities and institutions have to follow regulations or else they cannot use animals for research purposes. I highlight this because this is a major starting point for the discussions that seem to follow any blog posts on the topic of animal research. Many (many, many) people who express themselves skeptical or uncomfortable with the use of animals do not seem to understand or recognize this fact. Understandably because the propaganda war is currently being won by a side which has no interest in presenting a balanced truth. Scientist commenters fire back with this observation about regulation but things rarely progress. So if you profess yourself a concerned but legitimate actor in this little drama consider this a put up or shut up moment.
Let's do a little reading, shall we?
These USDA/APHIS Regulations dictate a number (!) of specifics which sometimes merely quote the AWA but oftentimes go beyond in a explication and refinement of the ways animals can and cannot be used in research. I will attempt to highlight some of the most important basic concepts.
I'll start with the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) which is a regulatory requirement for each University or research institute approved by the USDA to conduct animal research. The second essential concept is that an individual researcher cannot conduct animal research except under current approval of a protocol document which has been submitted to and reviewed by the IACUC. These protocols will have to wait for a later post, first I want to discuss the IACUC itself.
The membership of the IACUC is partially mandated by AWA [ TITLE 7:CHAPTER 54:Sec. 2143. Standards and certification process for humane handling, care, treatment, and transportation of animals(b)] and it is critical to highlight the two most-important individuals. The APHIS regulatory version is a slightly more fleshed out version of the above-linked AWA section.
The Chief Executive Officer of the research facility shall appoint an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC), qualified through the experience and expertise of its members to assess the research facility's animal program, facilities, and procedures.
Except as specifically authorized by law or these regulations, nothing in this part shall be deemed to permit the Committee or IACUC to prescribe methods or set standards for the design, performance, or conduct of actual research or experimentation by a research facility.
(b) IACUC membership.
(1) The members of each Committee shall be appointed by the Chief Executive Officer of the research facility;
(2) The Committee shall be composed of a Chairman and at least two additional members;
(3) Of the members of the Committee:
(i) At least one shall be a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, with training or experience in laboratory animal science and medicine, who has direct or delegated program responsibility for activities involving animals at the research facility;
(ii) At least one shall not be affiliated in any way with the facility other than as a member of the Committee, and shall not be a member of the immediate family of a person who is affiliated with the facility. The Secretary intends that such person will provide representation for general community interests in the proper care and treatment of animals
The Attending Veterinarian is a role that is mentioned throughout the AWA and all other guiding regulation. My reading is that the expectation and obligation is that the AV is an independent advocate and gatekeeper of the welfare of all individual animals being used in the local institution. I will admit up front that there is some debate about whether the IACUC or the AV is the pre-eminent authority but I think most agree that the AV has the authority to intervene whenever s/he is concerned about the distress or treatment of a given animal. The AV is also to be consulted in a general sense on the treatment and distress that is under discussion on a given protocol; in this s/he is considerably more-equal than other members of the IACUC. In practice, animal research (by general protocol or in specific cases) cannot proceed over the objections of the AV.
The "lay member" of the IACUC is also critically important because s/he has no allegiance to the institution, no interest in their continued ability to conduct science and receive NIH grants. His or her interests should be as a representative of the taxpaying public in the local community.
I'll take up the duties of the IACUC in the next installment.
Update 8/9/08: Related posts from acmegirl and drdrA. Update 8/10/08: Why we use animals from Neurotic Physiology and a roundup from Greg Laden.