Logothetis driven out of monkey research

May 04 2015 Published by under Animals in Research, Neuroscience, Science Politics

Neuroscientist Nikos Logothetis (PubMed) has informed his colleagues that he is stopping his long running nonhuman primate research program. An article in ScienceInsider by Gretchen Vogel details the issues:

Nikos Logothetis, a director at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen, Germany, says he will conclude his current experiments on macaques “as quickly as possible” and then shift his research to rodent neural networks. In a letter last week to fellow primate researchers, Logothetis cites a lack of support from colleagues and the wider scientific community as key factors in his decision.

This is not the "start" as was alleged by a Twitter person today. This is a long running trend that has been going on for decades. Productive laboratories that use nonhuman primates have been closing one by one. The decision by Harvard to shutter the New England National Primate Research Center was shocking in the way it violated the trend for picking off research labs one by one, but it was otherwise simply part of a larger trend.

And why are Universities and Research Institutes like Max Planck divesting themselves of monkey labs as quickly as possible? The Vogel article suggests an answer.

Logothetis’s research on the neural mechanisms of perception and object recognition has used rhesus macaques with electrode probes implanted in their brains. The work was the subject of a broadcast on German national television in September that showed footage filmed by an undercover animal rights activist working at the institute. The video purported to show animals being mistreated.

Logothetis has said the footage is inaccurate, presenting a rare emergency situation following surgery as typical and showing stress behaviors deliberately prompted by the undercover caregiver. ... The broadcast triggered protests, however, and it prompted several investigations of animal care practices at the institute. Investigations by the Max Planck Society and animal protection authorities in the state of Baden-Württemberg found no serious violations of animal care rules.

Emphasis added. This is a typical scenario. In essence, animal rights terrorist fanatics are able to get Universities and Research Institutions to turn their backs on productive researchers simply because they don't want to deal with the headaches any longer. Or because they fear bad press. The accusations are almost always falsified. Baseless. But it doesn't matter. The Universities are running in absolute terror of the fanatics.

Of course it goes beyond that, which is why Logothetis called out his fellow scientists.

The [Max Planck] society is “one of the best scientific organizations worldwide,” Logothetis wrote, but it has failed to take concrete steps against the activists. “I am no longer willing or able to accept the never-ending stream of abuse from animal activists toward myself and my co-workers while seeing them encouraged to increase their aggressive activities by the tolerance and very slow reactions of scientific organizations. There is a clear lack of consequences for illegal actions such as infiltration, violation of privacy, theft of documents, and even intentionally caused distress to animals in order to film supposed animal torture or abnormal behavior,” the letter states.

Logothetis’s letter also faults his scientific colleagues in Tübingen for distancing themselves from the controversy. The neighboring Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology posted a disclaimer on its website emphasizing that there are no monkeys at the institute, he notes, and colleagues at the nearby Hertie Institute for Clinical Brain Research refused to issue a declaration of support.

Pastor Niemöller once observed:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

There are certainly parallels. Biological scientists express a range of attitudes about many things and the use of animals in research is one of them. From fears of coming under assault themselves if they speak up, to discomfort with making an informed decision about the allegations against Professor Logothetis to frank antipathy to research in monkeys, we span the same range as many lay people.

We are easily able to delude ourselves that if we just let the most-detested targets of the terrorists get thrown under the bus, we can live our own lives in relative safety for another few years. Maybe run out the clock on our career before things get too bad.

Money is tight, after all, and gee, well lets not do anything to rile up the nice little old ladies who are poised to donate a few million to the University, eh? Let's not do anything to draw the attention of animal right's Congress Critters. That might make things awkward for the NIH.

Normally this is the point of my post where I exhort you to fight. To stand up and oppose this assault on scientific research. Where I point out to you that after the monkeys (and cats and dogs) comes the goats and the rabbits from which you get your antibodies. Where I tell you that all this pressure is doing is to move certain kinds of research to non-Western countries in which the animal research protections are, at best, at the lever of the US in 1950.

This is the point where I am supposed to be telling you to call your Congress Critter.

But I can't.

Logothetis is not the first and he will not be the last.

We have had ample opportunity for biological scientists to see and be motivated to do something about this situation.

They have not done so.

So I would be wasting my breath.

43 responses so far

  • Invasive experiments on primates are performed way too commonly in biomedical research. Primates should be used as a last resort when studying infectious diseases (AIDS, Ebola) and for other experiments with a clear relevance for human health. Performing invasive surgery on a monkey's brain to to answer some fuzzy neuroscience question is outside that realm.

    At the end of the day - if you wouldn't do the experiment on a brain-dead human newborn, then don't do it on an adult macaque.

  • toto says:

    Now that you mention it, I wonder if the primate center closure by Harvard was the reason why at least one monkey-based BSD just stone cold moved away around that time...

    AFAICT the MIT guys are still going strong with monkey stuff. Imagine visual neurosciences without the DeSimone and DiCarlo labs... (shudder)

  • drugmonkey says:

    It'll all happen within your scientific lifetime toto. Just watch and wait.

  • histoneguy says:

    We (the scientific community) has stayed quiet for too long. I fear that it's too late. Congress bows to the squeakiest wheel, and that's the animal rights community.

    And what they can't ban, they'll make too expensive to be practical. I know great neural physiologists who have retired early or quit because of the new dog regulations.

    Give them time, and they'll come for us all.

  • David Jentsch says:

    Where is the outrage amongst scientists? Where is the anger? Where is the bitter realization that animal rights extremists are taking us out one and a time? I am utterly disappointed by the profound lack of outrage amongst my scientific colleagues. There are a few, but growing number, of scientists that are suffering for the work we all do, but there are few crying out in their defense.... If anyone can go home each night and pretend like this doesn't affect us all, they are missing the point...

    When NHP works disappears, neuroscience as a discipline runs into a brick wall. It's simple as that.

  • jmz4gtu says:

    To be perfectly honest, I had absolutely no idea this was even an issue.

  • Spike Lee says:

    David, I know that you've gone through your own ordeal with activists. Were there any organizations (NAS, SfN, NIH) that you thought provided the right kind of support for your cause? Or that totally let you down? What would an ideal response be?

  • doug says:

    agreed, though I have a hard time getting a preaching and call for action about standing up for your beliefs and paying the price from an anonymous..

  • MnkyMnd says:

    Cowards by any other name...

  • Namate_Ish says:

    I shall again stand on my small soap box and scream, you all need to stop electing BSD neuro folks who use SfN presidency and other posts as CV plumage. Their job is advocacy and they aren't doing it. And all the lemmings keep voting for them.

  • theintronertphd says:

    Everything is on the side of the scientists. The law, the ethics committees, the funding agencies. Everything funding agencies and science advocates can do, is making clear that the activists are wrong, and they did that. There was no doubt that everything was correct and it was communicated to the public. You could say they should have been more pro-active. Instead of only responding to allegations, they should be transparent. Logothetis did that, also with the help of the Max Planck Gesellschaft.

    But that's not the pressure Logothetis and his team submitted to. The activists didn't win because the public is on their side, or because Logothetis had any problems with legitimacy. They won because they are physically and personally threatened, terrorized into submission.

    No advocacy would have changed this. These people are immune to science advocacy. People say the agencies should have protected the researchers. Here is the thing: the only protection they needed was physically. So what should they have done? Hire bodyguards? The police, no doubt was informed and as far as I know the German police, they surely take threats like this seriously. But apparently they weren't able to stop these threats, which wore down the scientists - possibly due to every changing perpetrators. The scientists who have no responsibility to put their health or the health of their families on the line for their work.

    If you want to blame somebody, its the activists who go as far as to send death threats, place warning flame bombs, and infiltrate labs.

    Do I think we need better advocacy? Yes. Do I think lack of advocacy is at the root of monkey labs closing? No. The lunatics will always be there and there is always a media outlet that will cover their bullshit and then the whole justification cycle starts again, at great stress to the researchers, and Logothetis weathered this shit for decades.

  • theintronertphd says:

    P.S. Logothethis wrote MPG failed to go against the activists directly. I didn't find a source for what he had in minde.

  • Paul says:

    theintronerd - the fact is that the MPG reacted far, far to slowly to the allegations made by the BUAV/SOKO, and what they did do wasn't nearly high profile enough. they should have done a lot more in terms of media interviews, editorials, social media etc. Now I know well that this was in part due to the fact that the MPG's communications team is quite small and was inexperienced in dealing with this type of situation, but that is in itself a reflection of the MPG's past failure to invest enough in comms and outreach, especially on potentially controversial topics. This needs to change.

    However, the biggest failing was not the MPG senior admin, but the researchers - and especially research leadership - at other MP institutes in Tubingen, who abandoned Logothetis in his time of need. Somebody at the MPI for Developmental Biology approved the web statement that they didn't conduct primate research, and that somebody was almost certainly the senior scientific leadership. They could and should have done hell of a a lot more, the examples of what can be done are there to learn from http://speakingofresearch.com/about/the-uk-experience/

    Remember the allegations were lies, that was clear enough within a few hours, and even if that was not enough to justify a strong show of solidarity the experience of other BUAV infiltrations provides plenty of examples to support this conclusion (e.g. http://speakingofresearch.com/2015/03/16/the-buav-more-spies-lies-and-inspection-reports/)

    If I was a neuroscientist I would be emailing my colleagues and urging everyone to contact Nikos to give him their support, and to also send polite but firm emails to the leadership of the MPG and other neuroscience organizations demanding that they take a far more robust and proactive stance to support fellow scientists who are under attack and to prevent such crisis in the future.

  • Holstener Liesel says:

    This is one of most idiotic analogies to the Holocaust I have ever witnessed.

  • twelveMonk says:

    Nikos wanted the MPG to file charges against this activists, particularly the one that infiltrated in the lab. But the MPG refused probably because of fear of bad press reprailsal . If scientific organizations don't take a strong stance we are all going to losse. They need to take a stance!

  • Comradde PhysioProffe says:

    "When NHP works disappears, neuroscience as a discipline runs into a brick wall. It's simple as that."

    This is a powerful argument if well justified. Can someone flesh this out for those of us who aren't already familiar with the details?

  • theintronertphd says:

    Paul:
    thanks for the response! I understand much better, now. I think it's very typical for German academic institutions to be very unprepared for this kind of interaction with the public. But I am surprised that you think they had no experience with such a situation. They had situations like this again and again for decades.

    Comradde PhysioProffe:

    The justification for primate work, but also the reason it is both dangerous and ethically problematic, is that the human brain is a primate brain. If you want to understand the human condition, NHP work is the closest you can get with invasive methods.

    But also in a more practical sense, without testing in a primate brain, you would have to develop neurosurgical methods or psychiatric treatments directly in humans, which is unethical.

    I wouldn't go as far as to say 'neuroscience crashes into the wall', but human directed neuroscience, the psychological side of it, may.

  • Dave says:

    I think we certainly need to improve our animal models in the absence of NHP. In physiology and metabolism, rodents are so woefully inadequate that it is having a serious impact on drug discovery (everything works in mice). I would love to move to dogs or pigs for pure physiology stuff, but costs are prohibitive. There is also the small issue of gene manipulation in larger animals.....

  • David Jentsch says:

    "If you want to blame somebody, its the activists who go as far as to send death threats, place warning flame bombs, and infiltrate labs."

    This point is well taken. I do blame the extremists who have gone to surreal lengths to try and stop me and my research. I certainly do. I also fault a broader society that sees personal targeting as acceptable/tolerable (since it's not directed at them) and that does not sufficiently prioritize the prosecution of criminal terroristic behaviors. To date, virtually no one has been taken to task criminally or civilly for bombing my car, sending me razor blades in the mail, marching in front of my home screaming lies about me and my work, targeting my students, etc.

    I do blame those that carried out these crimes/actions, but I also fault the broader scientific community which has been exceedingly slow and reluctant to get engaged in the support of the research and researchers under attack. This means more than a quiet voice of support. It means bold action - the kind that get the power players attention.

    Our Institutions and scientific societies are woefully disengaged for the very reason that they don't think this is a priority for the larger scientific community. Making statements is not enough. It's time for action. If we demand better of our Institutions and scientific societies, they will support those targeted.

    If those targeted are supported, they will not give in to the pressure, and scientific progress will continue.

    Then, we can blame AR activists for being the ignorant assholes they are, but not for causing the shut down of responsible and much needed research.

  • former staff scientist says:

    Does anyone else see the irony of DMs advocacy for non-human primate research coming directly after his post about medical experiments on slaves? I am sure animal rights advocates would.

  • CIN Solidarity says:

    CIN issued a Motion for Solidarity in support of CIN-member Nikos Logothetis

    http://www.cin.uni-tuebingen.de/sign-open-letter.php

  • Chall says:

    I'd point to "donations to research" and public funding that both need to be Palatable and "cute" in order to get max attention (positive attention hat is). The non-primate research I've seen has been pivotal and very important for moving the fields forward. However, as long as people understand (which I doubt) that rodent models are fairly limited for usefulness when it comes to certain, this is the choice of the people.

    I'm subjective here, having been threatened for doing/participating in animal research, even though I'm highly involved in ethical considerations, IRB applications and ethical animal rights committees (and having ethical training). I'm bad in the way that I do find an application for certain medical research in animals to save people (and in other cases other animals), this is the key problem for certain people.

  • drugmonkey says:

    fss- are you suggesting that black humans previously subject to involuntary bondage are the same as nonhuman animals?

  • drugmonkey says:

    jmz4gtu-

    Then I am happy that I bothered to post. Yes, this is reality.

    Some of the greatest scientific minds I know, including Professor Jentsch in this thread, have been hampered, stifled and reduced in their scientific productivity because of this. The terrorists are winning.

    But even knowledge of the one or two scientists you happen to hear about does not fully capture the effect of the constant drumbeat of three decades or more. Lots of labs that you can find in the literature just never really hit their stride and continued on for a good 15-20 year stretch.

    It is unfortunate so many are able to remain unaware of the greater reality.

  • drugmonkey says:

    (And I will admit that I am more interested in the conduct of science than most and so therefore I notice and check on career arcs more than most of you do)

  • bacillus says:

    I have personal experience of this back in the 1980s in the UK. Our institute performed a lot of infectious disease work on NHP including Ebola, Lassa, etc. My boss was also the veterinary pathologist for the place, so his name featured prominently on many NHP papers. He lived in the middle of nowhere and his house was almost impossible to find without explicit directions. Nevertheless, the ALF found it and planted a bomb under the last car in the drive way. This was his wife's car, and she is only alive today because she had not yet put on her seatbelt when the bomb went off, throwing her out of the car. At first, this was considered to be a domestic dispute, and my boss spent a couple of days locked up and questioned. His kids were also interrogated about whether anything in their personal lives might be linked to the bombing. The perpetrators were never caught, but we all spent the next several months checking under our cars in the morning. To top it all off, the ALF set up a "peace" camp directly outside of the facility and made sure we saw them taking photographs of our license plates as we entered and left. NHP work still goes on there, though it is now looks more like a fortress than a research institute. This was one reason I quit the UK for North America, but sometimes it seems I was merely postponing the inevitable. I also wonder whether human disease therapies might have been more advanced than they are now, if we'd done more NHP and less mouse and rat work. There was no scientific reason to switch but rather an ethical one possibly made under threat, and an economic one. I also wonder whether the lack of support for German scientists working on NHP stems from continued guilt over you know what.

  • Kevin. says:

    C'mon Drugmonkey, that's not what @former staff scientist was saying.

    Some would argue that NHP have just as many rights as humans, so their incarceration for medical experiments is unlawful. This is not a people-slaves-as-animals thing, so much as an animals-as-people thing.

  • kladderadatsch says:

    > I also wonder whether the lack of support for German scientists working on NHP stems from continued guilt over you know what.

    No, we don’t know.

    There’s a minor org in Tübingen calling themselves "Antispeciesist Action". They are of the type that uses their studies of humanities to argue against animal use (funny analogy: man : racism :: animal :: speciesism). They recruit Adorno, Horkheimer, and other theorist’s to derive their forgone conclusions. Among others they posit that care for animals and care for leftist social issues go hand in hand and are interdependent (i.e., a SJW is also animal rights activist and vice versa).

    The funny thing is, that Hitler himself was an ardent animal protector and Göring himself outlawed "vivisection" in his Prussian precinct.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Hermann_Goering_2.jpg

    (note in the caricature "liberated" animals doing hitler salute towards Göring in gratitude)

    What research methodology "lost" in models back then was made up by newly acquired human material under the NS regime. Everybody knows the pertinent "Doktor", who is equated with "evil" today.

    In addition, in their drive to white-wash themselves and modify their appearances, the scattered neo-nazi organisations increasingly try to co-opt animal rights organisations (like they do with urban subcultures like hip-hop).

    But still, the animatards keep pointing to new "holocaust" in the research facilities. Considering the backstory, this is flabbergasting.

    Out of consideration for the evil atrocities of the past and entirely different conclusion should be drawn.

  • kladderadatsch says:

    Here’ a short subsection of the lemma "Animal rights" on Wikipedia that shall make it clearer than what I wrote:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Animal_rights#Tierschutzgesetz

  • drugmonkey says:

    Yes Kevin, it was what was being said. It always is. This is why African American animal-rights wackaloons are scarcer than hen's teeth.

  • Adam says:

    "Primates should be used as a last resort when studying infectious diseases (AIDS, Ebola) and for other experiments with a clear relevance for human health. Performing invasive surgery on a monkey's brain to to answer some fuzzy neuroscience question is outside that realm. " -The Wackademic

    Brains are important organs. Brain diseases and disorders are some of the most devastating to our society (certainly more than Ebola and AIDS). Just ask the parents of a developmentally atypical child, or someone whose parents are fading away due to Alzheimer's, Parkinson's or Huntington's, or someone who's loved one's turned to a life of crime and prostitution due to a severe substance abuse disorder or debilitating psychosis. Moreover, the brain generates human behavior, which has immense public health consequences (crime, drug abuse, domestic violence, health-related decision-making, etc.). There might not be a field that has as far-reaching relevance for human health and well-being as neuroscience. Your characterization is inaccurate, dismissive, uninformed and frankly unbecoming of a supposed scientist.

    Finally, please don't characterize my hypotheses as "fuzzy". As a professional scientist, I work hard to develop clear, directed and falsifiable hypotheses.

  • Eskimo says:

    This article makes the state animal welfare officer for Baden Wuertemberg (see bottom) sound more like an activist than a government official. I have not seen any quotes from her in German language media, however. http://www.thelocal.de/20150504/monkey-torture-institute-to-close-programme

  • zb says:

    I'm honestly worried that there's a shifting trend, especially among young people, to support the animal rights cause, sometimes superficially. I found this curriculum on teaching about animal research at NWABR, that might be useful to others: https://www.nwabr.org/teacher-center/animals-research#overview.

    It's easy for kids to love their pets, be wary of messiness, and, be protected from the health events that intruded on more lives in the past. If we make research seem a secret then everyone can just delude themselves that they can have all the advances without the research.

  • Dennis says:

    @Kevin-
    I have to say that I took fss's comment exactly the same way as drugmonkey did and am quite glad he called out fss for it.

  • Philapodia says:

    A big part of the problem with public perception of science and animal usage is them simply not understanding what the hell we are talking about. The comment "I work hard to develop clear, directed and falsifiable hypotheses" is clear to any scientist, but when I say the word "falsifiable" to non-scientists most of the time they think it means "fake". We shouldn't have to dumb down what we say, but until the public is at our level that may be what it takes to have somewhat effective communication.

    Also, someone needs to develop an ugly monkey with reptile scales and bad attitudes. Then the animal rights activists wouldn't care because they're not cute and cuddly.

  • Jo says:

    The irony is that Logothetis has done some of the seminal work in establishing what the fMRI signal actually is - work that helps increase our ability to use non-invasive, non-animal methods in neuroscience.

  • Grumble says:

    Exactly, Jo. That further underscores that Logothetis' work is not exactly on what one would call "some fuzzy neuroscience question." At least one wouldn't do that if one had a couple of brain cells to rub together.

  • Dennis Eckmeier says:

    In case you missed it, there is an open letter of solidarity for Logothetis:

    http://www.cin.uni-tuebingen.de/sign-open-letter.php

  • Dennis Eckmeier says:

    - oops. didn't see it had been posted twice.

    - kladderadatsch: NS? really? Playing the cliche German, here?

    - German welfare officer:
    “If such a well established scientist as Logothetis considers these types of experiments to be unnecessary then it poses the question whether comparable experiments are at all necessary."

    Somebody who thinks that a scientist would only abandon experiments for reasons of scientific necessity, probably also thinks scientists are psychopaths who don't suffer under continuous public attacks by crazy people.

  • […] species and more How Republican presidential candidates are getting away with denying evolution Logothetis driven out of monkey research Max Planck neuroscientist abandons primate research due to animal rights lies and […]

  • […] this has been covered well elsewhere, I figured it was worth posting because it has seemed to disappear into the ether of […]

  • jmz4gtu says:

    http://news.sciencemag.org/people-events/2015/06/research-chimps-be-listed-endangered

    This is probably another bit of bad news for NHP researchers.

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