OSU President Responds to Critics, Fails to Explain Anything

Embattled president of Oklahoma State University, Burns Hargis, has responded to his critics in an OpEd piece found here in the online version of The Oklahoman and in the OSU college paper. It seemingly explains very little beyond the original press office quotations. Something to the effect that he had personally decided that supposedly controversial research (meaning that involving the eventual euthanasia of nonhuman primates) was not in the best interest of OSU. A couple of points relevant to my charges on this issue emerge. First, he states that his decision was not influenced by any wealthy AR activist donors:

It has been suggested that this decision was reached arbitrarily and it was influenced by animal rights activists as well as a donor. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Wait....which part is so distant from the truth? Just the "arbitrarily" part? Or is each individual criticism (arbitrary, ARA, rich donor) being denied?

As you might expect, the bit goes on in a similar vein. He mentions all the consultation he did in arriving at his decision but never actually explains who he talked to and what advice he received. His statements could all be perfectly compatible with "everyone told me NOT to do this but I went ahead anyway". Or not. Who knows? All of that is unverifiable assertion.
However, there are a few tidbits that we can expand upon based on other knowledge.

Contrary to reports, no contract has been written or awarded, nor has OSU received any funding for it.

Probably true, but... As we can tell from RePORTER, the current iteration of the U19AI062629 multi-component project is listed as starting 9/1/09. The Notice of Award must have been issued by the NIH. Every single multi-component project that I am aware of that shares a main project number is awarded in total to the primary host institution. This host institution then makes the sub-contracting / collaborative arrangements with any other institutions. But there is a twist. The host institution is the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation which is a private organization located near to the Oklahoma Health Science Center in OKC, distant from the Stillwater location of OSU.
So how should we take this? The critique that he pulled the plug after funding is, IMO, still valid because what people are trying to emphasize is that this project was following along the approved-and-funded track. Similar to all other successful NIH-funded projects. The only thing standing in the way was the decision of Hargis. So him claiming it wasn't actually funded kind of misses the point. It WOULD have been funded save for his action. That is all anyone is trying to say, I would think.

The financial impact to OSU would have been minor and OSU's role would have been limited,

Fair enough. I'm now realizing that OSU is seemingly limited to a sub-part of a component that has been described as $200,000 per year in direct costs. So probably in the range of half a million, maybe three-quarters with overhead, over the course of 5 years.
However, this bypasses the larger picture here. It has emerged that OSU has a shiny new Biosafety Level 3 capability and it is still unclear how it was funded. The capability for the project under discussion suggest that at some point and at some level, the facilities were intended for nonhuman primate studies. The OSU presumably got all this research infrastructure investment in some degree of competition with other Oklahoma institutions. If national funding was involved (NIH or even Congressional earmark- OK's Senate delegation is particularly powerful) then OSU won these resources against other national competitors. Point being that if the nonhuman primate capability was part of the argument for receiving infrastructure resources, resources which are supporting expansion of non-animal (or non-primate, more likely) bioterrorism research...then the impact on OSU should have been significant. They are basically pulling a bait and switch and waltzing off into the sunset. Also, if OSU was supposed to ramp up nonhuman primate bioterrorism models, and was supposed to be a fairly unique regional or national resource, how can the President possibly predict the impact in terms of future projects that now will never be proposed?

OSU has never been involved in euthanizing non-human primates.

Might be true or might not be true. Perhaps they have never had nonhuman primates on their physical campus before. But if their investigators have ever done anything with nonhuman primate tissues from collaborators at other institutions, and those tissues came from animals that were euthanized then this is a baldfaced lie. If Hargis plans to permit any of his investigators to conduct any work in the future (starting right now) that involves tissues from nonhuman primates that are euthanized, sorry but they are "involved".

I fully appreciate the difficult issues, as well as the many benefits, pertaining to animal research consistent with the highest ethical standards in developing new treatments for animal and human diseases. The benefits of such work for society are enormous and OSU will continue to be involved in animal research.

How can the OSU scientists trust him? The evidence still does not support any other conclusion but that he was running scared of animal-rights activist opposition. In general, if not by specific objection of Ms. Pickens in this case. Those nutters may focus their criticisms on nonhuman primate research but they do not make any categorical distinctions. So why should anyone believe that President Hargis will stand up to the next demand if it wants to put a stop to rat or mouse research? How do we know he will not apply this supposed talent for "weighing scientific merit" to find that other specific research projects are not in the interests of OSU?

9 responses so far

  • ERV says:

    Friday, 13 November 2009-- OSU President Burns Hargis receives his medal from presenter T. Boone Pickens.
    Yeah, no, I totally believe that the Pickens had nothing to do with this.

  • peer says:

    Prior to becoming president of OSU, Hargis had a distinguished banking and legal career and led many active civic and philanthropic initiatives. Hargis was a candidate for the Republication nomination for governor of Oklahoma in 1990 and is familiar to many Oklahomans through the political perspective and wit he provided on the award-winning television program “Flashpoint.”
    Interesting that he is making judgments about "scientific merit"...

  • neurolover says:

    "How can the OSU scientists trust him? "
    They can't, but, unfortunately, a lot of scientists think that throwing the primate researchers to the wolves (or in this case Pickens) won't affect them. They think their research will keep going under the radar.
    My opinion is that NIH has to take positions on these issues -- though it looks like the details in this case (the subcontract) might allow OSU to argue that this is different from pulling support for an RO1 or other grant that originated from their university.
    Someone at NIH should be discussing whether OSU is ruling out primate research at their new lab, and if so, requesting a return of a percent of funds, comparable to the percent of primate research done in such facilities, and funded by NIH.

  • Phud says:

    If Mrs. Pickens had nothing to do with this, it's interesting that she's crowing about the decision on her website. Before I saw it on any of the other Animal Rights sights. Not sure what the relevance is of this decision to horses....

  • dritwist says:

    DrugMonkey, the numbers are not adding up. First, since the renewal was just issued (5 more years), $200K/year equals a cool million over the course of the project, with another half-million in IDC. Given the relative paucity of NIH funding at OSU (OMRF and OUHSC account for the vast majority of that agency's Oklahoma largesse), that is hardly minor for that institution. Second, I'm having trouble reconciling the idea that you could do a terminal high-biosafety study with 124 baboons for that amount of money. Either that figure is not correct, or the IACUC approved protocols spanning more than the $200K/year subcontract cited.
    And as you indicate - there is still the matter of the multi-million dollar facility built with the intent and promise to conduct research such as that which Hargis has now prohibited. Certainly, it was not intended to be a one-shot deal, and was expected to facilitate numerous similar studies. The idea that his decision affects only a minor aspect of OSU's biomedical research program is absurd.

  • daedalus2u says:

    So what about the faculty and students that were going to use that funding? Is OSU going to make it up? How does this affect tenure decisions and graduate degree awarding decisions?
    If it is $200k in direct, what is the indirect?
    It is a direct violation of the OU handbook which includes a section on academic freedom
    Faculty members are entitled to full freedom in research and publication, subject to any restrictions set by law or by applicable codes of professional ethics, and subject to adequate performance of their other academic duties and to stated University policy on outside employment; but, except under conditions of national emergency, a faculty member should not undertake to do research on University time or using University facilities or funds under any agreement which would (except for a definitely and reasonably limited time) prohibit open communication of the results.
    The ethics rules 3.2.3
    Faculty are referred to Oklahoma Ethics Rules, sections 257:20-1-3(a)(2), 257:20-1-4(c)(1) and 257:20-1- 9(c)(2). These rules are promulgated by the Oklahoma Ethics Commission, not the legislature, but they have the force and effect of law and there are civil penalties available for violating them.
    As state employees, instructional faculty can:
    (A) NEITHER ASK FOR NOR RECEIVE ANYTHING AT ALL that actually affects the performance or nonperformance of their duties or impairs the independence of their judgment: and
    (B) can NOT RECEIVE MORE THAN $100 in aggregate per year (including items provided to the
    employee’s immediate family members)from (1) a lobbyist or lobbyist principal, or 2) a person or entity seeking to do business with the University, or 3) anyone who has an economic interest in a decision pending with the employee or his department.
    The University of Oklahoma relies on the state ethics rules to set minimum standards of propriety with respect to conduct by all University employees, The Norman Campus Faculty Handbook establishes obligations for instructional faculty to discharge their duties competently and without exploitation of students, and makes other financial pursuits secondary to the overriding obligation to the institution and students.
    There is additional information regarding the Oklahoma Ethics Commission available at http://www.ethics.state.ok.us, click on 2007

    The provisions for funding by the university if outside research funding is not available is dependent on how much indirect funding has already been obtained.

  • vhutchison says:

    Daedalus: Yiur quotes are for OU, not OSU. What does the OSU handbook say, if anything at all?

  • Anonymous says:

    This T. Boone Pickens fellow is a republican,right? In that case, perhaps the best way to respond to this situation might be as follows: ZOMG!!1! YOU'RE CUTTING OFF RESEARCH ON ANTHRAX VACCINE?/!! WTH!??* DO YOU WANT THE TERRERISTS TO WIN???!! Just a thought.
    * "What the Heck" - dealing with these conservatives you don't want to even imply naughty words.

    You read ERV's post too?
    But you omitted the "stupid blondes" part. That's what makes it quality scienceblogging.

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