SfN Committee on Animals in Research Issues Challenge to the NIH

A recent press release from the Society for Neuroscience informs us of the recent publication of two opinion pieces in the Journal of Neuroscience. One is by Professors Jentsch and Ringach and strikes a tone similar to their Letter to the Editor published Journal of Neurophysiology I mentioned previously. The J. Neurosci opinion by Ringach and Jentsch concludes:

We must now face the many threats to animal research in general and to neuroscience in particular. We must prove that "scientific community" means something more than the mere fact that we publish in the same journals and attend the same conferences. We must stand together to defend those colleagues under attack and defend the research we believe to be ethical and critical for our understanding of the brain in health and disease. The public is ready to listen.

Slightly more provocative is a call to NIH action from the current head of the SfN Committee for use of Animals in Research.

Professor J. Kordower writes:

I and many of my colleagues have been greatly disappointed by the failure of NIH to take a stronger stand against animal rights terrorists. Articles have been written by high-ranking NIH officials condemning their activities; e.g., [direct link inserted]. That is good. However, it remains hard to imagine how words alone will have any material impact on the behavior of these criminals. The leadership of SfN, including CAR members like myself, have solicited NIH to mandate that all custodians of their research funds (i.e., virtually all universities and other institutions performing research) have a protection plan in place for their researchers. Common sense would seem to dictate that if NIH can mandate the existence of IACUC, Institutional Review Board (IRB), and other oversight committees to protect animals and clinical trial patients before receiving NIH funding, a similar requirement can be instituted for the protection of the individuals performing the research. The Best Practices document described above [Ed- and available here] can serve as a template for such a plan. This request has fallen on deaf ears.

Huh. Well far be it from me to take someone to task for criticizing the NIH...but I'm not sure this is the right way to go. The home attacks that made the news would not have been prevented with any conceivable protection plan. Campus facilities can be tightened up a bit, sure, and it would be nice to have a little NIH backing. But we are not talking about just convening a committee- upgrading research facilities can cost a bundle. There is a limit to what can be accomplished with unfunded mandates.
Another impossible bit in the Best Practices plan appears to request direct political advocacy (as opposed to public outreach). As a government agency, the NIH is not permitted to directly lobby Congress of course. Nor can NIH funds awarded to local institutions be used for this purpose, if I have it right. So I'm not sure you could legally have a NIH mandate, even an unfunded one, that requested direct political lobbying.
The rest of the Best Practices plan is basically a commitment for strong advocacy on the behalf of animal research. In one sense I'm with this all the way. It is what I want all research institutions that take NIH dollars to conduct research to do. To stand up pro-actively and publicly. To come on like gangbusters should any of their researchers come under attack.
Sadly, not all research institutions do this. Many years ago when I was on the grad-school interview circuit I visited a department in which one of the PIs I was mainly interested in working with was in recovery from an animal lab attack. Actually, I would say that to this day this person never recovered. Oh, s/he continued as a professor and eventually started publishing again. Including with the animal models that were the focus of the attack. But production seemed slow, grants seemed sparse and one can only imagine the personal hell this investigator was put through for several years. It was clear to me that I couldn't go there and I am sure the person had trouble recruiting students and postdocs for some time afterward. Back on topic, one of my most distinct memories from talks with other grad students and faculty when I visited was the profound disappointment in the lack of support from the University in question.
This memory makes me wonder now how any NIH mandate can force a University administration to be highly supportive (instead of barely tolerant) of their animal research. How is this supposed to be enforced if they fail to make the grade, anyway?
Is the NIH going to threaten to pull all of the funding going to a very large University because they were less than fervent in defense of one small-potatoes investigator who works with one of the highly ARA-salient species? Pshaw.....

7 responses so far

  • qaz says:

    Out of curiosity - are there any examples of University administrations being highly supportive of animal research, particularly in the face of extremism? The examples that get discussed, particularly the examples that get complained about, are usually the ones that fail. Some positive (successful) examples might help guide what universities can do?

  • neurolover says:

    Well, this document is taking an SFN position that they should, "threaten to pull funding" if a university is insufficiently committed to the research. They make that threat if animal facilities fail to live up to technical snuff, even on something as technical and specific as the style of doors or the material in the floors.
    But, I agree with you that SFN hasn't written this in the appropriate lawyerly/lobby-ly way. Parts of the document raise important conficts within a university: "examine student-university organizations, in keeping with standards of protected activity" for example. We know that the good folks at SFN don't mean that we should be infiltrating animal-rights organizations at universities (any more so than infiltrating the college democrats to look for soviet spies).
    #2 in the list is a solid goal, and one that can be used as a wedge. For example, one of the issues at state universities is the very broad Freedom of information laws that can allow activists to harass individuals. That information isn't supposed to be used to threaten or harm private individuals, though. But, universities & their state sponsors have often erred on the side of disclosure, with scant concern for individuals. Demanding better security can force universities to deal with the conflicts. NIH can reasonably demand that the safety of the researchers it funds be protected.
    #1 & and especially #3 aren't appropriately enforced by NIH, though, because they really do interfere with the universities ability to be multi-dimensional. Do you have to support the Iraq war if you get DoD funding for missile research?

  • Anon says:

    There's talking the talk and then there's walking the walk.
    UCLA has been very supportive in the media and has engaged in a number of educational and outreach activities. They have also quietly booted their nonhuman primates off campus from what I hear. The former is very encouraging, the latter not at all.

  • neurolover says:

    "Out of curiosity - are there any examples of University administrations being highly supportive of animal research, particularly in the face of extremism?"
    Northwestern University, in the late 1980's, when a subgroup of "ARA-salient species" researchers were targeted by NEAVS. They used their legal muscle.
    The legal arm of the university sent a strongly worded copyright letter that forced NEAVS to re-do all its campaign literature (NEAVS had used the Northwestern N with the wildcat without permission). They helped purchase signs from the Foundation of Biomedical Research. They helped students organize pro-research protests, giving students & others training in responding to AR activists. The PR/Media arm arranged for two researchers who were not targeted by the activists to appear on talk shows about animal research. They facilitated two appearances by students on local cable talk shows. When AR activists wrote threatening graffiti on campus, the graffiti was filmed and appeared on the evening news as the main story about the issue. And, when it all died down, the university president came to a celebration supporting the student involvement in the pro-research activities.
    Even with that support, researchers were harassed. The scenario DM describes, of dealing with the emotional strain altered some research programs. Others survived but felt scarred. But the university did what I thought could be expected, to treat the "ARA-salient" researchers as part of a valued community. One most vital point was the willingness of those who used non-salient species, students, and professors, to join in the battle.

  • inverse_agonist says:

    It's not really true that federal agencies aren't supposed to engage in lobbying. The "drug czar" has a statutory mandate to to oppose any attempts at legalizing a Schedule I controlled substance, and John Walters regularly traveled the country to oppose marijuana-related ballot initiatives.
    As long as the government can spend taxpayer money on advocating stupid drug policies, I see no reason that it shouldn't be able to spend money on advocating scientific research.

  • David Jentsch says:

    Thanks for the comments (above). As someone noted, UCLA [and a few other campuses] have eventually risen to be very supportive of faculty under attack. Providing for safety and security at home and at work is the minimum a university should do. Taking vocal and articulate positions in the community media about the exceptional value of the research enterprise going on in the university (and the participant researchers) is another. Finally, pursuing every possible legal avenue to protect researchers (such as obtaining protective restraining orders) is yet another.
    That being said, the ultimate responsibility for support for researcher welfare lies upon other scientists. As we tried to indicate in our piece, it has long been the case that many scientists neglect to participate in the process of protecting their colleagues because they don't feel that they, themselves, are at risk. Even if this were the case (and no one - whether they work on monkeys or fruit flies - is truly free of risk in this matter), it's not right to take such a position. We are a community of scientists, and we will all ultimately rise and fall together.
    As a postscript: UCLA did not move any animals off of campus because of the animal rights issue. We did move some of the animals to another University for the simple reason that we could provide a much more rich and stimulating environment there (tell that to the AR folks who are casting stones at us!), enrich our collaborations with the recipient University and still accomplish our scientific goals.

  • Dario Ringach says:

    I'd add to David Jentsch's comments that the majority of UC Chancellors have also signed the Pro-Test petition in support of biomedical research and condemning the violence of animal right extremists. Hopefully, we will see the remainder adding their signatures very soon.
    NIH involvement in this debate is also critical, and they must join the growing number of scientists to defend the research they fund and support.
    However, as David also pointed out, it is the involvement of the scientific community (our colleagues, postdoctoral and graduate students), that is critical for our movement to reach critical mass and snowball into a force that will oppose the message of those that want to eliminate the use of all animals in biomedical research.

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