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.
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.....