Harvard to close their New England National Primate Research Center

Apr 25 2013 Published by under Animals in Research, NIH, NIH Careerism, NIH funding

Harvard has decided not to seek to renew NIH support for their New England National Primate Research Center, established by Congress in 1962. The Center has operated with a so-called "base grant" from the National Institutes of Health underpinning the not-inconsiderable costs of housing thousands of nonhuman primates and the usual grab bag of investigators' independent sources of funding. The NENPRC site lists an impressive series of accomplishments.

First unambiguous evidence that AIDS is caused by a virus.
Discovery of Simian Immunodeficiency Virus (SIV) and development of first animal model of AIDS.
Original demonstration that vaccine protection against AIDS is theoretically possible.
Discovery that a gene product of the AIDS virus activates lymphocytes necessary for disease progression.
Identification of therapeutic genes that can prevent infection of cells by the AIDS virus.
First demonstration that protective genes introduced into blood stem cells can block HIV or SIV infection.
Discovery of primitive blood stem cells lacking CD34 and their implications for bone marrow transplantation
Isolation of type-D retroviruses as major causes of illness and death in macaques.
Discovery of the oncogenic herpesvirus, Herpesvirus saimiri.
Discovery of a nonhuman primate virus closely related to the human Kaposi's sarcoma-associated herpesvirus.
First nonhuman primate models of colon cancer and inflammatory bowel disease.
Evidence leading to the use of hydroxyurea to treat sickle cell anemia.
Discovery of stunned myocardium and its role in myocardial ischemia.
Discovery of cellular organization and critical period for development of the visual cortex.
First unambiguous evidence for the addictive properties of nicotine.
Identification of major risk factors in self-injurious behavior.
First animal model for progressive neurodegeneration in Parkinson's disease.
Development of improved brain imaging techniques for early diagnosis of Parkinson's disease.
Development of novel cellular and pharmacological strategies for treatment of Parkinson's disease.
First survey of distribution of cocaine binding sites in primate brain.
Identification of the dopamine transporter as a principal target for cocaine in the brain.
First nonhuman primate model of drug relapse.
Development of novel drug classes to treat cocaine addiction and other brain dopamine disorders.

Most of the news reporting has focused on a series of lapses in the care of nonhuman primate subjects, leading to several deaths. I cannot comment on the degree to which this situation reflected lapses in the system, but clearly Harvard was undergoing major corrective measures. The news accounts describe situations which seem to me to be procedural lapses that have relatively straightforward fixes. Nothing appears to be systematically unfixable...again, going by the news accounts.

The Harvard Medical School press release is slightly more instructive, however.

The decision to conclude NEPRC operations follows a two-year period during which the Center leadership successfully addressed operating issues with input from the NIH and other governing agencies. The process resulted in new procedures that have significantly strengthened the Center’s day-to-day activities and that can serve as a model for other institutions throughout the country. Many of those changes carried additional costs, and HMS will continue to make investments in the Center to ensure ongoing compliance with all federal regulations.

Right? So the problems were fixable and they'd been investing in fixing them for two years. "Additional costs", eh? Well, no biggie if the investment is good.

But what has happened in the past several months, hmm? The sequester. The Continuing Resolution for FY2013. Obama's budget request for FY2014. None of this is good news. If you look at the NENPRC as effectively a small, soft-money research institute funded in large extent by federal grants (and let's face it, partnering with for-profits isn't going that well for academia right now either) then its prospects are pretty dim. Look at the situation through the lens of Return on Investment and everything becomes clear.

As they weighed whether to renew the base grant from the NIH, HMS leaders made a strategic decision based on a review of the long-term academic benefits and the financial cost of continuing to operate the NEPRC.

“Deciding how to best assign our limited resources is not unique to HMS,” said Jeffrey S. Flier, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine of Harvard University,

also...


Driving the decision was the fact that the external funding environment for scientific research has become increasingly challenging over the past decade. Recent funding pressures have added uncertainty to this already-challenging fiscal context. As Harvard Medical School leadership evaluated the long-term need to use its resources in the most effective manner across all of its missions, they came to the conclusion that winding down the operations of the NEPRC was more beneficial to the School than investing further resources in maintaining and renewing the NEPRC grant.

So yeah, this looks from the outside like a small, specialized research institute closing down due to the NIH funding situation to me.

Maybe I have NIH grant myopia but this is the way it looks.

I am reviewing some of the claims made about their listed accomplishments and going back to the original papers, where I can deduce them. In a few areas that I am familiar with....man. Straight up. These are valid claims, even if we recognize that no science breakthrough arrives entirely by itself. And more importantly, particularly when it came to the early days of AIDS, I am having trouble imagining how progress could have been made so rapidly without one of the National Primate Research Centers. They really do seem to serve a unique function in the NIH / US Federal extramural research enterprise and it would be a shame if this was merely the lead indicator in shuttering the whole program.
__
Disclaimer: I have professional acquaintances that work at NENPRC. I am disturbed that they are losing their jobs and I do hope that they get snapped up by some other University.

39 responses so far

  • AP says:

    Got to love the sequester.

  • miko says:

    "The process resulted in new procedures that have significantly strengthened the Center’s day-to-day activities and that can serve as a model for other institutions throughout the country. "

    Only Harvard could call itself a "model" while explaining in the same breath how much it's spending to fix fuckups in order to comply with outside scrutiny. I have no idea how systematic the problems were, but the incidents that were reported seemed to me to be of the unforgivably stupid variety for a flagship institution doing primate research. A track record -- even one like this -- is no excuse.

    More interestingly... perhaps the budget cuts / sequester are going to be cover for a lot of politcal/PR/tactical bloodletting and score settling under the guise of austerity.

  • drugmonkey says:

    of the unforgivably stupid variety

    I suppose that many things look this way in retrospect. If you've ever served on an IACUC at a University with any scope of research at all then you might have a more charitable view. As I said, the length of time for the corrective measures certainly make it seem more systemic of a problem than the mentioned incidents do. We have no idea over what timeframe and involving how many experiments/subjects. Nor how many people where involved in the oversight process. If everything happened in six months under one set of administrators, this differs from a 10 or 20 year wrapup of ills.

  • drugmonkey says:

    perhaps the budget cuts / sequester are going to be cover for a lot of politcal/PR/tactical bloodletting and score settling under the guise of austerity.

    I agree with you. This is a horrifying consequence of the budgetary problems and one that the NIH should probably consider a little more deeply.

  • miko says:

    Fair enough... I have no experience or understanding of the complexity and issues surrounding IACUC in a facility on this scale. Just given Harvard's status in the public eye and the politics surrounding this kind of research, I think if you are going to get one thing right...

    This kind of thing never happens with the catering at Harvard Business School events... the consequences are too dire.

  • Physician Scientist says:

    Of course, Harvard could dip into their $32 billion endowment to cover this for a bit if they felt it was important - but god forbid, the school make an investment from their own funds rather than from indirects.

  • Dave says:

    Of course, Harvard could dip into their $32 billion endowment to cover this...

    This.

    DM I know that the TBRI primate center is planning on picking up some of the investigators from Harvard (I heard at least two, but primarily in the HIV or developmental biology area). They are one of the only remaining primate research centers left.

  • The Other Dave says:

    ...but the university said the closing stemmed from a tough economic climate and shifting strategies.

    I think the phrase 'shifting strategies' is key.

    The dean of the medical school, in another source:

    The school would have had to make considerable investments. Those are investments that would not have been able to go in other directions. And when we looked at everything, including the more difficult external funding environment that we all face this was the right decision.

    In other words, given the money they'd need to keep dumping into the facility to keep it open and the increasing likelihood that NIH would not cover those costs, the facility would no longer be a profitable enterprise. Harvard is protecting its bottom line.

    James Anderson — a deputy director at the National Institutes of Health, which provides the major funding for the primate center — said Harvard notified the agency of its plans about a week ago.

    “This is Harvard’s decision,” Anderson said in an inter­view. “We did not expect it.”

  • zb says:

    I also saw the economically motivated decision that the PRC would no longer be a profit making (or even net neutral) enterprise for Harvard, and hence the lack of support. I think you're right that a lot of soft money institutions/departments/enterprises are going to face this same math, with their sponsoring organizations thinking about how quickly the investment is going to turn a profit. Bigger organizations will do the math with specific divisions, and yes, how those divisions are evaluated is going to depend on politics.

    I also agree that the list of past accomplishments is substantive and that they are a prime example of why the PRCs were established int he first place (wasn't it a lesson from the polio efforts?). And, they paid off. But, I don't know that we need 8 PRCs. They grew during the economic upturn.

    I interpret the tamarin deaths as a result of monkeys that weren't in active research programs (though I don't know any inside scoop).

  • kevin. says:

    I'm pretty sure that HMS and Harvard are separate financial entities, so I don't believe it's fair to just ask the Harvard endowment to pick up the bill. Besides, they have other financial investments and obligations that have recently soured, so they may not be in a position to do so anyway. Life is hard at the top.

  • Drugmonkey says:

    According to the pedia, cotton tops are critically endangered so I doubt these were in research protocols. Probably a conservation type of deal. Not sure though.

  • JoB says:

    I would also argue against using Harvard as the bellwether for anything, except maybe huge real estate corporations which have a college and a medical school attached to them. Had they wanted to maintain this facility throughout the end of the sequester and until the return of more sane funding rates, they could have.

    On the other hand, I just returned from EB to the land of stable funding. When my fellow physiologists asked how EB was, I replied with, 'depressing'. Virtually every faculty at R1 institutions is at least very nervous. People who had 12 postdocs now have 2.

    I wonder if the sequester will end up accelerating the generational turnover we have been expecting and also force some younger talented scientists out. I already hear reports of empty lab spaces at pretty big research facilities, so either this will get worse or there are going to be a lot of openings a few years from now when the last R01 has finally run out.

  • whimple says:

    I'm pretty sure that HMS and Harvard are separate financial entities, so I don't believe it's fair to just ask the Harvard endowment to pick up the bill.

    Universities LOVE to play this guess-whose-budget-has-the-dollars shell game. "We aren't responsible for the obscene salary we pay our athletic coaches because that comes out of the different budget".

  • The Other Dave says:

    @JoB: What's 'EB'? Sorry, I thought I knew all the secret code acronyms here.

    I already hear reports of empty lab spaces at pretty big research facilities, so either this will get worse

    Institutions built far more labs than were sustainable. They'll definitely stay empty. Or at least be used for some other purpose. Maybe used for for-profit educational experiences. If I were dean of one of these places, I'd find some otherwise out-of-work young scientists to generate and oversee 'lab experiences' for kids and other groups. I still wouldn't pay those poor scientist suckers (ha!) -- they'd have to get their money from their success. But at least they wouldn't have to write grants so often. And I think it'd work. It's inherently profitable (because you don't do it unless/until people pay), way trendy, media-friendly, and there's even still plenty of grant money for that sort of thing (Gates, HHMI, NSF).

    So, NIH administrators who might be reading this: Accelerate the cull! Starve the soft money parasites! You don't need to feel guilty anymore. It might actually be good for STEM education!

    or there are going to be a lot of openings a few years from now when the last R01 has finally run out.

    Not job openings. Those are never coming back. The days of professional biomedical grant writers masquerading as scientists are gone. A few misguided deans and presidents will try to keep the dream alive, and a few places (JH, UCSF, etc) will nominally succeed. But overall, I think that mine is all dug out.

  • Joe says:

    Where will the HMS scientists do their primate work? Are there other facilities around where that can be done or did HMS just kill a bunch of research projects?

  • DrLizzyMoore says:

    EB = Experimental Biology. It's a meeting...HUGE meeting.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    They will have to find jobs elsewhere Joe.

  • miko says:

    Who gives a fuck what EB is, where is "the land of stable funding"???

  • DrugMonkey says:

    "At least very nervous" captures things perfectly.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Janelia Farms, miko? ...maybe the cloud city of Carealot?

  • miko says:

    "Janelia Farms, miko? ...maybe the cloud city of Carealot?"

    Ahh, well, no amount of funding is worth life in an exurban hellscape.

  • Dave says:

    Not job openings. Those are never coming back. The days of professional biomedical grant writers masquerading as scientists are gone

    This is just nonsense. The NIH has taken a haircut, yes, and some people will and have already lost jobs, but the NIH still has a budget somewhere in the region of 30 billion. Don't get too excited! There is no stomach for more "discretionary" spending cuts in Washington, austerity is a raging failure in Europe (they are finally turning to growth strategies), and the US is growing itself out of its "debt" that the teabaggers claim is so damaging to the economy (based on now retracted research I might add). So, your raging boner over your wet-dream that the NIH will continue to face major budget cuts is not in line with the reality, and your desire to see biomedical research collapse in on itself is amusing but clearly comes from someone disillusioned with the whole enterprise.

    No doubt publicly funded biomedical research has problems and I wish the NIH was doing more to address them. No doubt that the next few years will be very difficult. But you are in your own fantasy when you are going on about the continual demise of the biomedical research workforce in the long-term. Research is and always was a matter of prestige for universities. Without it no R1 will survive, period.

  • David says:

    What is particularly frustrating about this situation is that NENPRC is called a NATIONAL primate research center for a reason. It has historically been the recipient of extensive national investment in order to create an infrastructure to support the national research enterprise and to itself make enormous discoveries of national concern (both scientific discoveries and advances in primate veterinary medicine and husbandry).

    Harvard's decision to close it is clearly not in the national interest (in fact, it contravenes it). It is, perhaps, in their own financial best interest (though whether that is true or not is unclear) but not in the national interest.

    Taking decades of national investment and closing a national research center should really not be the decision of academic administrators at one University. That said, the reality is that the NIH created a system where precisely that will happen when it created these centers in private Universities.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    I suppose the most critical question, David, is whether this is the 10% haircut applied to this particular National resource....or the start of a death spiral for the whole program of Centers. I doubt the latter but in these days it is conceivable.

    Some of the news reporting alluded to the potential for another Center to be launched....I think we can safely assume that won't ever happen. Can't see any other University wanting to do such a thing under the current realities.

  • Tom Holder says:

    SR have a statement on the NEPRC closure: http://speakingofresearch.com/2013/04/25/statement-on-harvards-decision-to-close-the-new-england-primate-research-center/

    Certainly seems the AR lot are claiming credit already

  • zb says:

    I don't think the absence of the NEPRC is going to close down all the primate labs at Harvard. PRC's have different relationships with their universities. UCDavis, for example, has primate labs completely separate from its primate center.

  • Joe Erwin says:

    Well, this is a sad note, in many ways. Research involving primates is changing. Many factors are involved. In many places investments in infrastructure lagged behind other priorities. Staying ahead of the regulatory trends needed to be a very high priority, but often was not high enough. Many places have been vulnerable to criticism of their primate housing/caging and their required "environment enhancement plans." Some sudden changes in NIH policies regarding enforcement of best practices and USDA regs probably contributed to some perception of large fiscal impacts at the same time as sequester-related cuts. Lots of facilities have been teetering on the edge of sustainability, and extreme animal rights terrorism plus self-inflicted wounds have sometimes pushed places over the cliff. I feel sorry for the Harvard researchers who counted on having a facility to sustain their programs, but I am confident that they can find CROs to place their work in if they wish to continue--or they can go to one of the several fine institutions (UC Davis, Washington, Wisconsin, Emory, etc.) that continue to have NPRCs. Or they can move their work to China, which would only be too glad to work with them on a collaborative basis.

  • The Other Dave says:

    I said: Not job openings. Those are never coming back. The days of professional biomedical grant writers masquerading as scientists are gone

    Dave (the other other Dave) said: This is just nonsense. The NIH has taken a haircut, yes, and some people will and have already lost jobs, but the NIH still has a budget somewhere in the region of 30 billion.

    I think you're wrong, Dave. The problem was never not enough money. Like you say, there's plenty of money -- more than there ever has been in history. The problem is that we are producing more scientists than can be supported by that money. For a while the money was growing as fast as the scientists, but that was weird. It's not going to happen again. To sustain the growth that happened over the last 20 years, the NIH budget would have to be over a trillion dollars by the middle of the century. Good luck with that.

    Jobs will be there, but they will appear at replacement rate. No faster. The idea that a PI could produce 20-50 versions of himself over his career, and expect them all to get jobs, was always stupid. People believed it for a short time, just like they believed big hair and bell bottoms and disco were once also reasonable ideas.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Bell bottoms are more like optogenetics.

  • zb says:

    I think you are right that this as economic decision driven by the numbers showing the the prc isn't profitable now and not likely to become profitable soon.1-q

  • toto@club-med.so says:

    Bell bottoms are more like optogenetics.

    It's a fact that bell bottoms have produced quite a few memory engrams in my hippocampus...

  • Grumble says:

    "The idea that a PI could produce 20-50 versions of himself over his career, and expect them all to get jobs, was always stupid."

    That's true. And it actually probably never happened, or happened only in rare cases. A PI might have 50 trainees over his/her lifetime, but many of them (the majority?) typically end up in non-academic positions. It's been like this for 50 years or more, and will stay like this.

    But I don't think that's necessarily a problem. There aren't many PhDs in biomedical science driving taxis. They are gainfully employed, making more money than they would without the PhD -- and their education was completely gratis (usually).

    I'm more interested in the question of whether the current system of write-10-grants-to-get-1 is sustainable for those who do manage to get an academic job.

  • whimple says:

    I'm more interested in the question of whether the current system of write-10-grants-to-get-1 is sustainable for those who do manage to get an academic job.

    It's also worth asking whether writing 10 grants to get 1 is the kind of job people want to have.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    It's also worth asking how many people find the job they have, no matter how close to what they always wanted, is indeed the job they want to have.

  • Alex says:

    Institutions built far more labs than were sustainable. They'll definitely stay empty. Or at least be used for some other purpose. Maybe used for for-profit educational experiences. If I were dean of one of these places, I'd find some otherwise out-of-work young scientists to generate and oversee 'lab experiences' for kids and other groups. I still wouldn't pay those poor scientist suckers (ha!) -- they'd have to get their money from their success. But at least they wouldn't have to write grants so often. And I think it'd work. It's inherently profitable (because you don't do it unless/until people pay), way trendy, media-friendly, and there's even still plenty of grant money for that sort of thing (Gates, HHMI, NSF).

    Pipeline programs fall roughly under the umbrella of "alt-ac" careers. Very trendy right now, but with more and more PhDs looking at these jobs, eventually they too will be filled. And then universities will convert these jobs to adjunct and/or soft money. The Director of the Faculty Professional Development Center will be part-time with no benefits. The Office of Student Life will be run by a soft money Coordinator constantly hustling for funding. The Digital Learning Office will be staffed with Adjunct Digital Curriculum Developers earning shit wages.

    Still, for a few more years there's money to be made there. So, yeah, go ahead and run a pipeline/outreach program in abandoned lab space for a few years.

  • A says:

    DM,

    it's also worth asking how many people will realize that the same way the economic mess was created it can be fixed: the economic system must be changed to a sustainable one. This would change society’s structure because it would have to limit wealth accumulation, and find a method of redistributing it, so that profit is not the actual cause of social devastation, or scientific advances, or civilization.
    Maybe the scientists ought to use the analytical talent to come up with one. Then science will flourish, it will be more than just a way to keep the ‘job number’ at a level needed for whatever. Remember also that lab supplies keep those semi-biotech businesses going. Those are factual statistics of the ‘economy’.
    Anyway, the rich are not going to bother more than for their investments, so it has to be the population with analytical talent that needs to approach them with the solution, which is in their self interest too.

  • A says:

    Currency, markets, etc etc need to be considered again, by those mostly affected: non-economists, the great majority that actuale innovate, produce, sweat, and are broke.

    THAT IS REALITY.

  • Eli Rabett says:

    They should take the primates and dump them in the economics department office. Profs. Mankiw and Rogoff will take good care of them

  • [...] were just discussing the closure of the New England National Primate Research Center. One of the uncertainties about that decision [...]

Leave a Reply


nine + 4 =