The Speaking of Research group has posted an open letter criticizing an analysis of research redundancy which forms the backbone of a USDA complaint authored by an ARA extremist*. The open letter points up the essential vapidity of the complaint and I encourage you to go read. (There are links to activist sites there so you may wish to be cautious about either providing it any more traffic or providing your IP address.) Returning to a few prior posts on the responsible and well regulated use of Animals in Research, I note that I never took up this most interesting topic for discussion, namely the nature of "unnecessary duplication" of research using animals.
To start, it is indeed part and parcel of the responsible use of animals for research purposes, in the US, to avoid unnecessary duplication of other experiments. If we return to the text of the Animal Welfare Act (USDA/APHIS pubs page; AWA pdf) we find this bit:
Congressional Findings for 1985 Amendment
Pub. L. 99-198, title XVII, subtitle F (Secs. 1751-1759), Sec. 1751,
Dec. 23, 1985, 99 Stat. 1645, provided that: ``For the purposes of this
subtitle [see Effective Date of 1985 Amendment note above], the Congress
... [ snip ] ...
`(3) measures which eliminate or minimize the unnecessary duplication of experiments on animals can result in more productive use of Federal funds;
This concept is followed up in the USDA/APHIS regulations (pdf) under the section which details the procedures the local IACUC must follow. :
Sec. 2.31 Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC).
... [ snip ] ...
[ Section d.iii ] The principal investigator has provided written assurance that the activities do not unnecessarily duplicate previous experiments;
So how does this work in practice? Well, as I've briefly mentioned, the local research University, Institute, research facility maintains an IACUC which reviews research protocol documents prepared by the laboratory (generally the PI) to cover each and every aspect** of the use of animals. As part of this protocol document, the PI has to not only make the above assurance but back this up with an outline of the database searches that have been made, including keywords, to come to this conclusion. Now I will fully admit that the procedural aspects of this are absurd. The reason the PI can make the assurance of no unnecessary duplication derives from her active engagement in research and her knowledge of the field, backward and forward. So the provision of "database searches" is a little bit silly. But I guess it is the best way to operationalize the concept.
What does this mean, though? For scientists working on a grant budget, under the usual time constraints and pressures it is laughable absurd to think that we would engage in research that we thought was unnecessary. In point of fact, the constraints on my laboratory mean that not only do I not do research that I think is unnecessary, I don't even get to do everything that I think is necessary! I am certain I am not alone in this thinking.
This brings me back to the Speaking of Research critique of an ARA extremist's idea of what constitutes "unnecessary" duplication.
What you claim is that your "analysis" demonstrates that a large number of scientists are doing the same study (in some cases, over and over again for years). Essentially, you figure that if scientists are using the same kind of animals, the same kind of methods and the same kind of equipment, they must all be doing the same experiment. In turn, you suggest that the government is paying for the same experiment many times. You conclude that this is needless duplication--a waste of animals, time, and money. However, once again, you misunderstand, or misrepresent, that each of these projects is addressing very different problems, each with independent implications for our understanding of human biology. Indeed, to ignore the question and focus on the similarities of methods is kind of like saying that two farmers, both of whom are planting seeds in soil and using the same kind of tractor, are growing the same crop to feed the same family.
To be honest, at first read I thought the Speaking of Research response must have taken a few liberties to make this guy look as dumb as possible. "Surely", I thought, "there must be more to the complaint than this." I was wrong. They have characterized the complaint, from what I can tell from the activist website, accurately. The complaint really does seem to say that if NIH funded projects use the same species of animal and the same techniques this proves they are "unnecessarily duplicative". The closest thing I found to a substantive point was an accusation that within laboratories they work for many years doing similar experiments with minimal differences- but of course this is not a fleshed out argument.
I believe there are a couple of important points here. It is all well and good to confirm, yet again, that some of the louder and more sustained critics of animal research simply have no idea what they are talking about. They have no knowledge of how research is really conducted, feel free to promulgate the most obvious lies and distortions and are completely unembarrassed (just watch the comments) by exhibition of their ignorance. Their complaints often fail to pass even the simplest tests of logic and understanding of reality and for certain misconceptualize the way in which science progresses.
Nevertheless, this is reality and unfortunately the mainstream media is ill equipped to understand; leading to unthinking and unexamined re-publication of ARA press releases. The salacious ARA accusations tend to garner more attention than they deserve and sit there, unopposed by sober descriptions of research reality.
So this is a reminder for us to not only monitor our laboratories for unnecessary duplication (it's possible, I suppose) but to refine our ability to communicate to a skeptical audience why our work is not unnecessary duplication. Control experiments can often look duplicative...because that is the entire point. We take this as a given for good experimental hygiene but remember that this is not necessarily obvious to nonscientists. We need to explain why and when not performing the seemingly duplicative experiment would lead to a need for even more animal groups run later. Why seemingly minor changes in the experiment can lead to different results and new knowledge. Always, always emphasizing the apparently complicated concept that we simply don't know the answer to a new question until we perform the experiments, even if in retrospect one thinks that the exact right limited experiment was obvious all along.
*I was going to say "organization" but really, this seems to be the work of one dude with a website.
**The method and level of detail can vary, the point being that under adopted standard operating procedures of the institution everything has to be considered and approved.