Tag Archives: NIH

Guest Post. How to Engage with the Public About Animal Research: Society for Neuroscience Panelists Offer Strategies to Scientists During Annual Meeting

Today’s guest post is from Amanda Dettmer, Ph.D.,  a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development. Dr. Dettmer is a developmental psychobiologist whose research examines the early life organization of sociocognitive development in nonhuman primates. She received her PhD in Neuroscience & Behavior from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2009. You can follow her on Twitter.
Dr. Amanda Dettmer

Dr. Amanda Dettmer


During their annual meeting in Chicago, the Society for Neuroscience (SFN) yesterday held a 2-hour lunchtime session dedicated to public outreach concerning animals in research. The panelists were international experts on communicating the importance of animal research to the public, and they offered invaluable advice to the hundreds of scientists in attendance.

While it’s clear that scientists – and the institutions that employ them – must be more proactive in communicating the importance of their research and the animal models they use, the panelists offered several tangible pieces of advice on how to achieve this goal. The strategies offered cater to researchers working with various animal models and, more importantly, with varying degrees of comfort in engaging the public in their research.

The session opened with remarks by the chair of the SFN’s Animals in Research Committee, Dr. Michael Goldberg, who stated, “We’ve been staying under the radar to avoid animals rights activists, and this strategy is not working,” particularly with respect to nonhuman primates in research. Earlier this year, Goldberg and the President of SFN, Dr. Steve Hyman, submitted a letter to Science in response to an article published there, “Embattled Max Planck neuroscientist quits primate research.”

AM15_Logo_CMYK_Horizontal_SavedForWebThe first panelist, Dr. Rolf Zeller, is the founding president of the Basel Declaration Society (BDS) and a founding signatory of the Basel Declaration, by which researchers recognize the necessity of animal research in biomedical research, and endorse the highest standards of ethically responsible animal research. Stating that researchers will “never convince PETA, but we can convince the public,” Zeller stressed the importance of engaging the public and offered the BDS’ most effective strategies for communication in Europe: regular media training sessions for trainees and established scientists, persistent use of social media, and open access publications on scientific communication. Zeller offered his “Golden Rules” for public outreach, which included:

  • 1) Receive good training in science communication,
  • 2) Be proactive and honest about your research,
  • 3) Discuss your animal research with colleagues, especially any who might be skeptical, so that they understand why it is important,
  • 4) Make it clear you care about animals,
  • 5) Explain why animal research is essential for patients, and
  • 6) Join the BSD and sign the Declaration to be part of a proactive community.
Pro-Test Italia

Pro-Test Italia

Dario Padovan, President of Pro-TEST Italia, a non-profit that “aims to promote and disseminate to the public correct knowledge on scientific research,” followed with an emboldening presentation on how the group increased positive public perception of animal research in Italy with regular strategies easily and equally employable in the US: 1) active, daily activity on social media (the group responds to every incorrect/negative Facebook comment on their page, 2) engaging young scientific experts to reach their contemporaries (saying “most users of social media are 18-34 years”), 3) regularly producing YouTube videos that show detailed primate research in a humane and responsible way (which receive tens of thousands of views and >90% net “thumbs up” ratings), 4) fighting fire with fire by creating satirical anti-animal rights propaganda, and 5) getting patients who benefit from animal research involved in public outreach.

Pigtail macaques at the Washington National Primate Research Center

Pigtail macaques at the Washington National Primate Research Center

Dr. Michael Mustari, Director of the Washington National Primate Research Center, then highlighted the outstanding care that nonhuman primates at his, and all of the other six, National Primate Research Centers in the US, receive, as well as the significant contributions primates have made in the advances of such diseases as HIV/AIDS, polio, ebola, and Parkinson’s disease.

Mustari said, “People who argue against nonhuman primate work do not pay attention to reality.” He drove home the need to engage with the public by showing the type of video that the public needs to see regularly to understand the value of primates in research, like this one showing a quadriplegic serving himself a beer for the first time in 13 years, thanks to advances made possible by primate research. Mustari ended by discussing the inspiring global outreach the WaNPRC performs under the directorship of Dr. Randy Kyes, Head of the Division of Global Programs at the WaNPRC.

Jason Goldman

Jason Goldman

Dr. Jason Goldman, an animal-researcher-turned-science-writer, rounded out the session by sharing lessons he’s learned from animals in communicating to a variety of audiences. Using brown-headed cowbirds and betta fish as examples of animals that change their messages based on who’s listening, Goldman said, “Animals have learned what I tell scientists over and over: Different messages are required for different audiences.” Goldman offered tangible pieces of advice for burgeoning (and established) science communicators, including 1) tell personal stories whenever possible and evoke emotion (using Cecil the lion as an example), 2) use simple visuals and avoid complex graphics (even popular infographics can be hard to digest), use memegenerator.net to make your own memes to communicate science on social media (this is perhaps the easiest tip to pick up, as I was able to create my own – and first! – meme in about 30 seconds during his presentation), and 4) be relatable and make the public feel smart, not stupid.

The session concluded with a Q &A session from the participants seeking additional advice on best ways to communicate the importance of animal research to the public when you feel like your institution is resistant to the idea, how to deal with the internal struggle of loving animals while conducting research with them, and more. Given that the session went 20 minutes over its scheduled time, it was clear the audience found it an invaluable resource.

Later in the afternoon, Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health, gave a Special Presentation to SFN attendees in which he discussed recent advances in neuroscience with a particular emphasis on the BRAIN initiative. Though he rarely mentioned animal models in his talk, he did field anonymous questions from the audience afterward, one of which asked 1) what his personal opinion was on the role of animals, especially nonhuman primates, in the BRAIN Initiative, and 2) what concrete steps the NIH Directorship was taking to engage the public in the importance of animal research.

Collins stated that although the NIH worked with the Institute of Medicine to end chimpanzee research in the US, this “should not be seen as a reflection of how we feel about other nonhuman primates in research.”  He concluded by acknowledging the need for primates in some of the more invasive studies for the BRAIN Initiative that cannot be conducted in humans, and by underscoring the need for continued outreach to the public on the importance of animals in advancing biomedical research.

Amanda Dettmer

Amanda M. Dettmer, PhD, is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development. Her writing does not reflect the opinions of the NICHD or the NIH.

Guest Post: Why science needs to improve

Jeremy BailooToday’s guest post is from Jeremy D. Bailoo, PhD, a developmental psychobiologist in the Division of Animal Welfare at the University of Bern, Switzerland. He is currently involved in research which examines the manner by which we house and care for animals and its relevance to animal welfare and how it affects experimental results. He is particularly interested in providing empirically based procedures for refining animal housing.

Why science needs to improve

In a recent article in the Huffington Post, Professor Marc Bekoff and Dr. Hope Ferdowsian outlined their reasons for believing that science does not need mice. Their article was written in response to an editorial in the New York Times which advocated for the need for female mice in laboratory research. Bekoff and Ferdowsian made a number of interesting points and cited relevant supporting literature. However, their response presented only certain aspects of the issues involved. In this piece I will deconstruct the arguments levied by both sides. I will refrain from critiquing information that was not accompanied by a citation in either article, as these constitute unsubstantiated opinion.

The authors of the New York Times editorial described a new study published in the journal Nature Neuroscience which suggested “that research done on male animals may not hold up for women. Its authors reported that hypersensitivity to pain works differently in male and female mice….If these differences occur in mice, they may occur in humans too. This means a pain drug…might appear to work in male mice, but wouldn’t work on women.” These authors then state that failure to consider gender or sex in research is well recognized and cite the work of Zucker and Berry (2010) as well as the repositioning of interests statement of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) specifying sex as a biological variable in NIH funded research (see here and here).

The NYT editorial framed a well-articulated argument and did not overstate any of the claims that it made. The issue of the underrepresentation of females in biomedical research has been repeatedly highlighted (e.g., here, here, here, here and here) with little change in US science funders’ policy until now. It is important to note that nowhere in this article is it stated that all research in mice is ungeneralizable to females. Indeed, whether a scientific result is generalizable to both sexes is dependent on the phenomenon being studied; and this seems to be the case in particular for pain research in mice.

Mice in a research laboratory. Image courtesy of Understanding Animal Research.

Mice in a research laboratory. Image courtesy of Understanding Animal Research.

In their argument against the use of mice in research in the Huffington Post, Bekoff and Ferdowsian state that “numerous experiments on male and female non-human animals (animals) fail to reliably hold up in humans, and many prominent researchers have argued we need to develop non-animal models in order to learn more about serious diseases from which numerous humans suffer.” It is without question that some (not all) experiments in male and female rodents fail to replicate their results when that same experiment is performed on humans. However, as the ability to falsify and to replicate an experimental result are the cornerstones of the scientific method, failure to replicate an experimental result does not imply poor generalizability of an animal model to the human condition. I have recently co-authored an article on this topic demonstrating that meta-analytic studies have revealed that the reporting of criteria related to experimental design and conduct in some biomedical animal experiments is poor. The reasons why the result of an experiment conducted in non-human animals may fail to be replicated in humans is a consequence of complex processes that cannot and should not be trivially summarized by the statement “we need to develop non-animal models in order to learn more about serious diseases from which numerous humans suffer.”

In support of their argument, Bekoff and Ferdowsian cite the article “Mice Fall Short as Test Subjects for Some of Humans’ Deadly Ills”. In summarizing this article, Bekoff and Ferdowsian imply that because C57BL/6 mice (a single strain of 16 classified as Tier 1 in priority for investigation) do not seem to be able to model sepsis in humans, then all mice fail as a model of human disease. This is a logical fallacy, and a quick google search leads to very interesting responses to this article. Some are in favour of this piece (e.g., here) while others quickly identify flaws with the logic (e.g., here and here). Indeed, in the original article, the authors state “The study’s findings do not mean that mice are useless models for all human diseases.”

Next, Bekoff and Ferdowsian make the claim that the former director of the National Institutes of Health, Elias Zerhouni has lost confidence in the use of mice to model anything that is related to humans (see here). Bekoff and Ferdowsian fail to cite the clarification or perhaps are unaware of the clarification that was given (see here) in which Mr. Zerhouni states, “In short, animal models remain essential to the basic research that seeks to understand the complexities of disease mechanism.” As my colleagues at the website Speaking of Research have put it: “Animal models are essential to developing new medicines. They are, obviously, not sufficient on their own – cell cultures, human studies and computer models (among others) are also crucial methods used alongside animal models.”

The next paragraph with a citation states “Even experiments involving similar nonhuman species have shown that studies in mice, rats, and rabbits agree only a little more than half of the time (please see Hartung and Rovida 2009)”. Careful reading of this citation, however, does not yield this information. Indeed, nowhere in this article are any of these claims made. More interestingly, the cited article states, “no acceptable alternatives to reproductive-toxicity testing (in animals, my emphasis) have emerged, or are likely to be validated by 2018. Computational approaches are also limited by the complexity of reproductive toxicity and because half of the REACH chemicals are mixtures, inorganic, salts or contain metal atoms, rendering toxicity less predictable”. Thus, rather than supporting Bekoff and Ferdowsian’s arguments, it would seem that Hartung and Rovida advocate for the use of animals in toxicological research because there are no good alternatives.


Laboratory mouse. Photo courtesy of Understanding Animal Research.

Bekoff and Ferdowsian then state, “Attitudes toward animals are also changing, and now is the time for action. As per a recent nonpartisan Pew Research Poll, a solid 50 percent of people surveyed now oppose the use of animals in laboratory experimentation — an all-time high in the public opinion research literature.” This is indeed alarming and is the reason I have spent many hours researching these data. It is time that active scientists speak up for their science and break the cycle of misinformation that is spreading throughout our society.

In their penultimate paragraph Bekoff and Ferdowsian indicate that many may be incredulous in realizing “that mice and rats aren’t animals but a quote from the federal register does in fact read, “We are amending the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) regulations to reflect an amendment to the Act’s definition of the term animal. The Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 amended the definition of animal to specifically exclude birds, rats of the genus Rattus, and mice of the genus Mus, bred for use in research” (Vol. 69, no. 108, 4 June 2004).” It is worthwhile to note the date of this citation, June 2004 – 11 years ago. Much has changed in those 11 years and much will continue to change in the future. As science progresses, the type of animals used in research, the manner in which they are used, and their care will be continually scrutinized by scientists and the public. As a result, animal care, use, and corresponding regulations will continue to be adjusted. Moreover, animals used in research (including birds, rats, mice) are covered by Public Health Service (PHS) Policy on Humane Care and Use of Laboratory Animals since 1985 while guidelines for the care and use of laboratory animals have been critically considered since 1963 and have been continually updated as new information becomes available. Ferdowsian and Bekoff are either ignorant of current US regulations governing research or are deliberately being disingenuous.

These authors conclude that “there are numerous non-animal alternatives that are extremely reliable (please also see), and it’s about time they are used.” Again, where is the evidence for this? As I have outlined in this commentary, Bekoff and Ferdowsian have not provided sufficient evidence to come to this conclusion. Moreover, the statement that many non-animal alternatives are currently available and reliable requires careful deliberation. An example of such deliberation can be found here. The unsubstantiated statement that alternatives exist and are reliable does not make it so. Currently, such research and methods complement, rather than replace, research in non-human animals.

Thus, it would seem that the argument levied by Bekoff and Ferdowsian that science does not need research with mice is misleading. Poor reproducibility of experimental results is a problem in biomedical research. Indeed, it is a problem with science in general (e.g., here, here and here). To address the question “does science need mice”, one would have to: 1) examine the fields of science which use mice, 2) identify whether the science is performed with experimental rigour (design and conduct), and then 3) evaluate whether the findings obtained from these rigorous experiments are reproducible. By and large, the scientific community is still at step 2. As I mentioned previously, many fields which conduct research using mice report results that are irreproducible. The current cause ascribed to these failures is poor experimental design and conduct. This insight is gained by analysing whether information related to experimental design and conduct in published manuscripts and experimental applications are reported. For many fields of study employing the use of rodents, we cannot even begin to evaluate the effectiveness of a model because the manner in which the study was reported was poor. It is worth emphasizing that poor reporting of aspects of a study related to experimental design and conduct does not necessarily imply that a study was conducted poorly. Ascertaining this information would require interviews for each published article in question; a Herculean, if not impossible, feat. As highlighted in my recent paper, many solutions have been put forward to improve the manner in which we execute and report experiments but until these are endorsed and enforced, science in general will not improve. And that also applies to research using humans as subjects.

Jeremy D. Bailoo, Ph.D.

The opinions expressed here are my own and do not necessarily reflect the interests of the the University of Bern or the Division of Animal Welfare at the University of Bern.

Chimpanzee Retirement: Facts, Myths, and Motivation

How often have you heard the claim that chimpanzees who have moved to a sanctuary have felt “dirt and grass under their feet, sunshine on their faces” for the first time in their entire lives because they have come from laboratories where they have only known barren, concrete environments?

Yerkes chimpanzees

Chimpanzees at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center.

You may hear it pretty often if you follow the fundraising and publicity campaigns that are aimed at raising money to support facilities that care for animals retired from research.  Among many examples, are recent comments by Cathy Willis Spraetz, president and CEO of Chimp Haven. Chimp Haven is the US chimpanzee sanctuary supported and administered primarily by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) through public, federal funds that assure lifetime retirement care of research chimpanzees. Chimp Haven was founded in 1995 by behavioral scientist Dr. Linda Brent and a group of primatologists and business professionals.

In a recent presentation, Chimp Haven’s current CEO Spraetz said:

“Many of these chimpanzees have spent literally decades in laboratories. And so their experience has been concrete and mesh, not grass, not dirt. And so after decades of being there, coming to Chimp Haven is a novel experience and a very scary one. Many of them do not want to put their feet down on grass or dirt. …  We try to accommodate the chimpanzees and meet them where they are. The good news is that many of them, after a couple of years, actually can transition. But in the meantime, we give them a lot of different spaces so they can feel comfortable where they are.” [Emphasis added.]

Similarly, in a CNN story this weekend“Retired means to sanctuary. Labs are lots of things, but they are certainly not sanctuaries, and so it’s important that the chimps come here,” Spraetz said. She noted that some lab chimps have lived in cages for so long, they’re afraid of grass when they arrive at Chimp Haven. Gradually, they become accustomed to living in a more natural setting.”

The image and language resonate. They evoke emotional responses in compassionate people who care about animal welfare. But are they claims that are representative of the actual situation?

In many cases, they are not at all. For example, the picture below shows chimpanzees in four settings. In each, it is easy to see that the chimpanzees have dirt under their feet and sunshine on their faces.  Where are they?  Two are current research facilities, one is an NIH-funded sanctuary, and one is a publicly-funded zoo.

chimp housing [Autosaved]

Clockwise: Top – Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Atlanta, GA (Note: Yerkes’ chimpanzees are not NIH-owned or supported); Lincoln Park Zoo, Chicago, IL;  MD Anderson Keeling Center for Comparative Medicine, Bastrop, TX; Chimp Haven, Keithsville, LA.

In fact, the majority of research chimpanzees in the US live in settings that provide outdoor housing, including dirt and sunlight. They also provide extensive and complex climbing structures, opportunities for foraging and tool-use, toys, fresh produce and treats, bedding, interaction with expert and compassionate caregivers, and state-of-the-art medical care and facilities.

Are all the facilities equal in all aspects? No. But neither are the sanctuaries, zoos, and other settings that house chimpanzees in the US– more chimpanzees, in fact, than are housed in research facilities (Chimp Care).*  Furthermore, those research facilities are subject to more extensive standards, greater public oversight, and more public transparency than the zoos, sanctuaries, entertainment, and private homes that house chimpanzees.

Misrepresenting chimpanzees’ current housing and care is a problem.

There are a few explanations for why anyone would make the claim, or use partial truths, to encourage others to believe that most research chimpanzees live in barren concrete environments. One is simple lack of knowledge and experience. Another is a deliberate misrepresentation. Neither serves the animals or partnership with others in order to thoughtfully provide for the chimpanzees’ best long-term care. Nor does it serve the public.

It is likely that many members of the public may not be familiar with accurate representation of the conditions and housing of chimpanzees in NIH-funded primate centers.  That is not the case, however, for many involved in sanctuary efforts and who have first-hand knowledge of the dirt, sunshine, and enriched care that chimpanzees receive in many– if not all– research facilities.

Chimpanzees 2

Chimpanzees at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center.

The question isn’t whether there is room for continuing improvement in captive chimpanzee care and housing. No one would claim any captive setting is the same as the wild, or that any sanctuary, zoo, or research facility is beyond improvement. (The same is true for the wild, where chimpanzees are subject to many negative outcomes due to human influence and vital conservation efforts require more support.) But in reality, there is often more similarity than difference in chimpanzees’ actual care and housing between many of the best sanctuaries, zoos and research facilities in the US and in other countries. The question is how to identify best practices that balance animal welfare and the facilities’ purposes and then find workable solutions and funds to make them common practices.

Furthermore, a closer comparison of the actual conditions at the federal sanctuary facility and those at the facilities in which the animals currently live is also key to serious, fact-informed evaluation of statements made about the NIH’s progress and eventual decisions about moving chimpanzees from their current homes to Chimp Haven.  In this weekend’s CNN story, the director of Chimp Haven makes a number of arguments in favor of increased funding and speeding the movement of chimpanzees to the Louisiana facility.  Many of those arguments revolve around whether, and how much of a difference there is between the different settings, and whether there is a difference to the animals’ well-being.

The quality of all of those evaluations depends on factual and specific comparison, as well as evidence for meaningful difference in the animals’ well-being.  The balance of benefit and harm includes the known stress to the animals that is caused by moving across country, into new situations, and into new social groups. Although movement to sanctuary may have benefits, it also has costs to the animals. For example, beyond relocation to unfamiliar housing, care practices and caregivers, the animals also face potential disruption of their social groups, introduction to new groups and upheaval in dominance hierarchies. The adverse impact of these stressors is of particular concern for elderly animals and for others who may be especially vulnerable to negative health effects of stress. Thus, consideration of those balances and comparison of different facilities must be taken together to inform decisions about investments that best suit the animals’ needs.

Bastrop chimps tool use

Chimpanzees at MD Anderson Keeling Center for Comparative Medicine, Bastrop, TX.

Federal public funding for retired chimpanzees
Over the past 15 years the US public, through federal legislation with overwhelming bipartisan support, has committed to an estimated $86 million to support the lifetime care, housing, and enrichment of retired research chimpanzees. In 2000, federal legislation (Chimpanzees Health Improvement, Maintenance, and Protection; CHIMP Act) established the first national chimpanzee sanctuary and committed life-time funding for retired NIH chimpanzees. As a result, in 2002, a $30 million public investment was made to build and fund Chimp Haven. Chimp Haven is the only federally-funded– though not the largest– US chimpanzee sanctuary.  (For more history and information see here: http://dpcpsi.nih.gov/orip/cm/chimpanzee_management_program)

By 2013, following NIH’s decision to retire the majority of its chimpanzees, additional funds were required for Chimp Haven’s ongoing support. Thus, the CHIMP Act Amendments of 2013 were passed by the US House, Senate, and President. Under new legislation, NIH may

“use already-appropriated funds to pay for care of chimpanzees housed in federal sanctuaries if doing so would be more efficient and economical for the NIH.”

An analysis by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) in 2012 estimated an additional $56M cost to retire and maintain federally funded chimpanzees for a 5 year period (not the animals’ lifespan). The cost to support the entirety of the NIH’s ~500 chimpanzees may be roughly $8M each year; although the cost will likely vary significantly with increasing medical and care needs as the population ages. The CBO analysis also determined that there was no cost savings to moving federally-owned chimpanzees to sanctuary instead of research facilities.

US federal funds provide the majority of revenue for Chimp Haven and support the majority (~75%) of the cost of each NIH chimpanzee retired at Chimp Haven. Chimp Haven was built and funded primarily for retirement of publicly-owned research chimpanzees. However, it is also used for retirement of privately owned animals who are not supported directly via federal funds. In October of 2014, NIH reported an annual expenditure of $4.44M to Chimp Haven for the care of 191 NIH-owned chimpanzees and an average care cost of $63 per day per chimpanzee. The same report includes a range of $32-60 daily care cost for chimpanzees in other NIH facilities that house NIH-owned chimpanzees.

Chimp Haven photo from NAPSA

Chimp Haven, US federal chimpanzee retirement facility. http://www.primatesanctuaries.org/sanctuaries/chimp-haven-inc/

Federal support for chimpanzees goes beyond direct care of research animals. For example, NIH and NSF supported scientific research has produced new knowledge that continues to benefit chimpanzees in the wild and in captivity. Furthermore, federal investment in the nation’s primate research centers from the 1960s on supported continuing advances in chimpanzee housing, care, and enrichment that now drive best practices and chimpanzee health care in zoos, sanctuaries, and research facilities.

chimp haven 2

Chimp Haven, US federal chimpanzee retirement facility. http://www.primatesanctuaries.org/sanctuaries/chimp-haven-inc/

Is misrepresenting research facilities necessary?

It is unfortunate that some of those leading sanctuary publicity and fundraising efforts continue to base their appeals in claims that generally have little basis in current fact. It is also unfortunate that the many campaigns for fundraising for the federal sanctuary fail to let the public know that the NIH and US have, in fact, pledged lifetime support for federally-owned chimpanzees. This level of public support has not always occurred in those countries that have dismantled their chimpanzee research facilities.

Some of the current campaigns centered on US chimpanzees give the impression that NIH ended research and put the chimpanzees out on the street without a dime, leaving others to provide for their “rescue.” That is far from the truth.

Fundraising is required to meet roughly one-quarter of the cost for NIH-owned chimpanzees at Chimp Haven and the full cost for chimpanzees at other sanctuaries.  But for those that care about supporting the animals and decisions in the animals’ best interests, that fundraising should not require a storyline based in half-truth or deliberate misrepresentation of the conditions in other facilities or the efforts of others who care for chimpanzees.

Allyson J. Bennett

* An estimated 1,822 chimpanzees live in the US. The care for roughly half of the chimpanzees in the US, including most of the 206 chimpanzees retired to the federal sanctuary (Chimp Haven), is provided in large measure by federal public funds. According to Chimp Care, a census project from Lincoln Park Zoo, US research facilities house 625 chimpanzees, while a research reserve houses 172.  Private sanctuaries house roughly one fifth of US chimpanzees (N=318). Nearly one-quarter of the chimpanzees in the US live in zoos, both those accredited by a non-public agency, the American Zoological Association, (262) and facilities designated as unaccredited in Chimp Care’s data (174). Chimpanzees in the US are also kept in entertainment venues (14) or by private breeders and private owners who regard them as pets (51). Such private ownership of primates is opposed by leading scientific organizations including the American Society of Primatologists.

American Society of Primatologists’ statement of support for NIH primate research

The nation’s largest primatological scientific society, the American Society of Primalogists (ASP), has posted a strong statement sent January 21 in support for the scientist and research under attack by PETA.  The statement can be found on ASP’s website: https://www.asp.org/index.cfm

ASP home page Jan 2015

In its entirety, the letter reads:

“Members of the Board of Directors of the American Society of Primatologists would like to add our comments to the discussion of the validity and effectiveness of non-human primate research as it pertains to human behavior and medicine. Non-human primate research (on monkeys and apes) has had widespread effect on improving the diagnosis and treatment of many adult and childhood diseases. Studies that have employed the judicious use of non-human primates as models for human illness have improved our understanding of such disorders as autism, childhood leukemia, cerebral palsy, and mental health.1 The long-term research of one scientist, Dr. Stephen Suomi, has been called into question as a result of inaccurate, misguided and inflammatory media accounts. Our comments will address Dr. Suomi’s work and the value of non-human primates in understanding human biology, illness and behavior.

Dr. Suomi’s research has focused on the influence of variable environments and genetics on infant development, and by extension variation in adult behavior2. He and his colleagues found that early changes in the degree of attachment between mother and infant have real biological, not only behavioral influences on adult social behavior3. If this finding seems intuitive, it is evidence that the benefits of research have permeated not only the scientific, but also mainstream media4 and literature. Infant subjects are either mother-reared or reared in same-aged groups of monkeys. Infants may undergo temporary isolation during the study5 to facilitate comparison among groups that are reared differently. The goal of much of this research is to mimic separation that every social animal, including humans, undergo during their lifetimes and to understand why individuals respond differently to separation. One such research focus is the development of risk factors leading to mental illness in humans.

The American Society of Primatologists supports research on non-human primates that is carefully designed and employs rigorous research protocols. Dr. Suomi’s research and consistent funding by the NIH attests to his adherence to prescribed protocols and regulations.

Before research can begin, proposals are thoroughly vetted by both their institutional ethical oversight board (in the United States these are called Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees or IACUCs) and by the review boards of granting agencies (e.g., NIH, NIMH, NSF). This very extensive process requires prospective researchers to respond to questions such as those raised in your letter, e.g., your concern about redundant research. Per both the Animal Welfare Act and Regulations (AWARs) and the Public Health Service Policy on the Humane Care and Use of Laboratory Animals (PHS Policy), research funded by federal and state governments, as well as private foundations, must demonstrate that the project they propose will advance knowledge in the field, be relevant to human biology or behavior, and will not duplicate the efforts of previous research. The number of animals used in experiments must also be justified as well as the conditions in which the animals are housed, the duration of the project, and the protocols implemented during experiments. The scientists employed by the NIH have been leaders in the development of safe, effective, and reliable research protocols whether the research is done on mice or monkeys.

Because of the close genetic relationship between humans and non-human primates, monkeys are important models for studying particular biological phenomena, including the research conduct by Dr. Suomi. Nevertheless, non-human primates are rare in laboratory populations making up < 1% of the laboratory animals used in research (Government statistics from 2010, cited in Phillips et al., 20146). Furthermore, species are carefully matched to proposed studies.

We appreciate your attention to this matter, and ask that you please send us a response letting us know the charge to the NIH Bioethics Review Board.

Respectfully submitted,
Marilyn A. Norconk, President; Justin A. McNulty, Executive Secretary; Kimberley A. Phillips,  President-Elect; Corinna N. Ross, Treasurer; Karen L. Bales, Past-President


Supporting science: NIH answers PETA

The National Institutes of Health released a statement Monday in support of a well-respected and long-standing primate research program within the NIH intramural program that has been the subject of an ongoing PETA campaign. The focus of the research program, under the direction of Dr. Stephen J. Suomi, is on:

“examining the behavioral and biological development of non-human primates. Primary objectives are to understand how genetic and environmental factors interact to affect cognitive development, as well as develop interventions that can alter developmental trajectories of individuals whose specific genetic and experiential background put them at risk for adverse developmental outcomes. These studies cannot be carried out in humans and require the use of animal studies to carefully separate experience, genetic, and environmental factors. Ultimately, these findings assist researchers in identifying humans most likely to suffer negative effects in at-risk situations and develop behavioral and drug therapies to improve negative outcomes early in life.”

The NIH statement notes the high value of the research program, as assessed by an external board of scientific experts who concluded that the program:

  “has achieved world class, enduring contributions to our understanding of the developmental, genetic, and environmental origins of risk and vulnerability in early life,” and “could be a truly remarkable point of departure for a unified theory describing the biological embedding of early social conditions and their developmental consequences.”

Cover PNAS monkey pic 2For more about the research, the laboratory, and the animals, see:

NIH’s Response to PETA

NIH’s response to the PETA campaign was thoughtful, thorough, and transparent. The response includes a positive assessment of the value of the research in terms of human health relevance and advances in scientific understanding. It addresses why the research in conducted in monkeys and why it is not possible to use alternative methods, or to conduct the work in humans.

The response also includes a serious, fact-informed consideration of the animals’ welfare. Detailed responses from two of NIH’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees that conducted an extensive evaluation of the research address each element of the concerns raised by PETA and the scientists supporting them (including, Professors John Gluck, Psychology, University of New Mexico; Agustin Fuentes Anthropology, Notre Dame; and Barbara King, Anthropology, William and Mary College; Lawrence Hansen, Pathology, UC-San Diego).

Furthermore, in response to PETA’s complaint, the NIH undertook an exhaustive review via its Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare (OLAW). Comprehensive responses to each of the concerns raised by PETA are contained in the reports posted on the NIH website. For those who seek more information, facts, and substantive background to inform their consideration of the conduct of the research and the animals’ welfare, we encourage you to read the NICHD IACUC response posted here: NICHD 12.17.15 ACUC_Memo_2_121914

nih statement 01.28.15

Taken together, NIH’s responses provide a strong demonstration of a high level of care and consideration of animal welfare, as well as the risk and benefit balances that are inherent in the conduct of research with both human and nonhuman animals. The response clearly vindicates Dr. Suomi and provides welcome public acknowledgement by the NIH of the importance of his work.

As welcome as the NIH responses are, they are not, however, responses that will satisfy PETA’s absolutist goal of ending all use of nonhuman animals for any purpose, including animal research, but also food, companionship, entertainment, or other uses.

PETA’s complaint about this and other research included language about animal welfare and about alternatives to animal research in order to achieve the same scientific goals. In reality, however, PETA’s position—like that of all absolutists—is not centrally concerned with either viable alternatives to animal studies or with animal welfare. Rather, the position is that no human use of other animals—any animals, whether photogenic and appealing in popular campaigns, or not—is justified, regardless of the outcome or harms. (See here and here for additional discussion.)

As a result, it would seem that no response NIH could give to PETA would be satisfactory unless it was to end all animal research altogether. Or, in the case of a particular project or lab, the only response satisfactory to PETA or other absolutists would be to end that project, or close that lab. At some level then the question to ask may be about the cost: benefit of such responses.

By contrast to the absolute viewpoint, aspects of ethical consideration of animal research that matter to the majority of the broad public and to the scientific community are evidenced by their instantiation in the laws of a democratic society and  in regulatory and community standards, as well as in individuals’  own assessment. These include concern with significant public health challenges and appreciation for the critical role of basic scientific understanding as the foundation for a broad range of advances that benefit the public, other animals, and the environment. They also include acknowledgement of accomplishments and breakthroughs for human and nonhuman health that are accomplished via animal research. At the same time, they include selection of alternatives where possible, attention to animal’s care and welfare, continuing refinements of procedures in accord with evidence, risk and benefit justification, external oversight, and expert scientific evaluation.

In the case of the current NIH campaign and other campaigns against specific animal research there is a well-known pattern. A group like PETA focuses on a research project—usually one involving  animals such as cats, dogs, or primates that will capture broad public interest. The group then uses the highly responsive system of public institutions and government agencies to obtain information, call for investigation, and launch media campaigns to elicit public concern (and donations). The campaigns are typically based in some form of oversimplification and misrepresentation of the research, treatment of animals, availability of alternatives, or value of the science. In the face of public inquiry or media attention, public research institutions under attack typically offer a response focused on the scientific question, accomplishments, absence of non-animal alternatives, and on the animals’ welfare and oversight.

The problem with that pattern is that it ignores the fact that PETA and others’ campaigns are, in many ways, a reflection of a conflict between fundamentally different philosophical viewpoints. These differences cannot be resolved simply by ensuring scientific advances, careful risk and benefit assessment and balance, or high standards for laboratory animal welfare. All the care, training, accreditation, and external oversight in the world will not address the concerns of individuals or groups who are absolutely opposed to the use of animals in research and who believe that no matter the benefit, use of animals in research cannot be justified. Nor will such approaches address those who believe — wrongly, in most cases — that there are existing alternatives to the use of animals in research. Furthermore, each additional layer of oversight and regulation introduced in an attempt to appease those who cannot be appeased may well add substantial administrative hurdles and costs to the scientific effort without achieving meaningful improvements for animal welfare.

From that perspective, and in light of yet another PETA campaign that has resulted in a significant and extensive response from public agencies, the question becomes whether – and what – might be a better path forward. At present, the same path does not look like one that is productive to improving scientific research. Rather, the prediction would be that PETA and other groups will continue to use the transparency and responsiveness of public research institutions to lend steam to popular opinion campaigns that then target individual scientists, laboratories, and institutions. In turn, a great deal of time and energy will go into investigations, responses, and reports that are likely to yield little in terms of animal welfare, little public benefit, little progress to ending animal research, yet potentially high harm to science. At the very least these responses consume resources that would otherwise be devoted to scientific research or practical enforcement of regulations to protect animal welfare.

As we welcome the NIH’s support for Dr. Suomi we must also ask ourselves a question:  How many more cases like this will there be before the leaders of the scientific community take action to prevent the regulatory system from becoming primarily a tool of the animal rights propaganda machine?

Speaking of Research

American Psychological Association supports NIH primate researcher Stephen J. Suomi

Research conducted within the National Institutes of Health (NIH) intramural program has been the focus of a PETA campaign over the past several months. Elements of the campaign mirror tactics PETA has used elsewhere to generate media coverage, fundraising, and emails or phone calls to the NIH. The campaign recently reached beyond newspaper, bus, and metro advertisements to include a congressional request to NIH to provide a review of the research.

The American Psychological Association (APA) responded on January 22 with strong statement of support for the scientist and research under attack by PETA.

APA 01.22.15

APA’s letter to the congress members, in its entirety, reads:

“In December 2014 you were one of four members of Congress who sent a letter to Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), requesting that his office commission a bioethics review of a research program directed by the world renowned researcher, Dr. Stephen J. Suomi. On behalf of the American Psychological Association and its Committee on Animal Research and Ethics, I am writing to provide a broader scientific perspective on this research. As you are likely aware, the request you received was a part of a sustained and well publicized campaign against Dr. Suomi’s laboratory by the organization, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), in support of its mission to put an end to research with nonhuman animals.

Your letter stated that prominent experts have raised concerns about the scientific and ethical justification for these experiments. We believe that the facts do not support PETA’s public statements about this research. Over the past three decades, Dr. Suomi and his collaborators have made significant contributions to the understanding of human and nonhuman animal health and behavior. Dr. Suomi’s work has been critical in understanding how the interactions between genes and the physical and social environments affect individual development, which in turn has enhanced our understanding of and treatments for mental illnesses such as depression, addiction, and autism.

Dr. Suomi and colleagues found that like humans, monkeys share similar variants of genes that make an individual more vulnerable to mood and personality disorders; however, genetics interact with experience in determining such disorders, and mother-infant dynamics in particular have a large influence on later development. Dr. Suomi has successfully produced monkey models of depression and excessive alcohol consumption and his studies provide insight into modes of treatment. Through his work on neonatal imitation, Dr. Suomi discovered potential early signs of atypical social development in monkeys, which has informed the search for screening methods and treatments for autism in human children. Further, through his work on the development of attachment behavior to a caregiver, which is crucial for infant survival in both humans and other animals, Dr. Suomi’s research has had a tremendous impact on the standards for the welfare of nonhuman animals in captivity.

Cover PNAS monkey pic 2

The specific study targeted by PETA was designed to investigate the long-term effects of fluoxetine (Prozac) in children. Given that drugs are typically tested only on adults, the effects of this commonly prescribed anti-depressant on children were unknown. Thus, in response to overwhelming concern raised by parents, physicians, and others involved in child and adolescent health about the safety of this medication for children, Dr. Suomi and his colleagues began a study with baby monkeys to elucidate the effects of fluoxetine in children. Contrary to PETA’s repeated claims that animal research has not improved human health and that modern non-animal research methods are more effective, there are, in fact, no viable non-animal alternatives for identifying the causes of and treatments for disorders that affect the brain and behavior. Studies with a wide variety of nonhuman animal species have been and continue to be integral to basic and applied research on health.

Laboratory animal models generally provide the most scientifically rigorous means of studying normal and abnormal behaviors in order to better understand their underlying mechanisms and to remedy disorders. Monkeys are the ideal model for the work that Dr. Suomi does, because they share approximately 93% of human DNA, they live in social groups with similar mother-infant dynamics as humans, and they develop more quickly than humans. Moreover, the monkeys in Dr. Suomi’s studies are treated humanely, following strict guidelines set forth by the Animal Welfare Act and overseen by numerous entities including the NIH Office for Laboratory Animal Welfare (OLAW), the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Association for the Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care, International (AAALAC), and institutional animal care and use committees. And given that Dr. Suomi is an intramural researcher at NIH, you can be certain that his research animals receive premier quality of care.

I understand that it may sometimes be difficult to weigh the qualifications and varying conclusions of “dueling experts,” but let me assure you that Dr. Suomi is a highly regarded member of the APA and the psychological science community at large, as well as a highly sought-after expert in the field of pediatric medicine. In addition to providing information to the U.S. Congress, Dr. Suomi has testified at the World Health Organization and addressed the British House of Commons about the implications of his scientific findings.

Based on the conviction that research with nonhuman animals is a necessary component of basic and applied research on health, APA strongly supports humanely conducted, ethically sound, and scientifically valid research with nonhuman animals. For nearly 100 years, through its Committee on Animal Research and Ethics, APA has promoted informed, serious, and civil dialogue about the role of nonhuman animal research in science. If you should be asked to take further action against Dr. Suomi, I hope you will make it a point to seek out additional information before making a decision. My staff stand ready to provide you with additional information, including assembling experts for a staff briefing or assisting you in any other way on this issue.”


The complete statement can be found here:  APA Suomi-letter 01.22.15


University of Wisconsin responds to dishonest petition attacking psychiatric research

What do you do if your university is the target of an aggressive publicity campaign that distorts and misrepresents the work of one of your most highly respected scientists? What do you do if hundreds of thousands of people sign a petition calling for a research project to be cancelled, even though the petition contains numerous errors of fact? What do you do if a media campaign, backed by several of the world’s largest animal rights groups threatens to undermine academic freedom and the research evaluation process at your University?

Do you ignore it? Do you give in? What do you do?

Infant rhesus monkeys playing in nursery. Wisconsin National Primate Research Center. @2014 University of Wisconsin Board of Regents

Infant rhesus monkeys playing in nursery. Wisconsin National Primate Research Center. @2014 University of Wisconsin Board of Regents

These are questions that the University of Wisconsin -Madison has faced in recent weeks as a change.org petition that seeks to end a research project led by Professor Ned Kalin, chair of the University’s Department of Psychiatry. The petition, backed by many animal rights groups across the world, including PeTA and HSUS, has gathered more than 300,000 signatures

So did UW-Madison give in? Did they simply ignore the petition?

No, they did something much better.

UW-Madison issued the response below rejecting the erroneous claims made by the author of the petition, Dr Ruth Decker, and defending Professor Kalin’s right to undertake important research. Just as importantly they defend the right of the scientific and medical experts at UW-Madison and the NIH – and not the misinformed mob – to decide which projects should be approved and funded.

We commend UW-Madison on taking this strong position in support of science.

Responding to Ruth Decker’s change.org petition

Since September, many people have taken interest in a University of Wisconsin–Madison study on the impact of early life stress on young rhesus monkeys. Thousands have added their names to a petition on the website change.org, calling for an end to the work, and we appreciate and share their concern for animals.

But we don’t appreciate the way petition’s author, Dr. Ruth Decker, misrepresents the research. By piling up mistakes, myths and exaggerations, and omitting important information, she asks well-meaning people to speak out with little understanding of the real science and the long, deliberative process through which it was approved.

This isn’t fair to the people who signed the petition, or to UW–Madison psychiatry professor Ned Kalin and the scientists involved in the work, or to the millions of people who suffer from mental illness for whom available treatment methods offer little relief.

The truth is of little concern to activists who wish to end animal research, no matter the benefit to humans and animals. We don’t share that sentiment. We prefer people make their judgments on animal research with a fuller understanding of the research — of both its costs and potential benefits.

So, if you have read the change.org petition, please also consider these corrections and additional information:

  • This is not a repeat of experiments UW–Madison psychology professor Harry Harlow conducted as many as five decades ago, some of which subjected animals to extreme stress and isolation. The methods for the modern work were selected specifically because they can reliably create mild to moderate symptoms of anxiety in the monkeys. They were chosen to minimize discomfort for the animals, and to minimize the number of animals required to provide researchers with answers to their questions.
  • There is no “solitary confinement.” The animals live in cages with other monkeys of their own age, a method of care called peer rearing. This method is often used when mothers reject their infant monkeys, which happens regularly in situations from nature to zoos to clinical nurseries with first-time mothers or following caesarean-section births. In a group setting, even veterinarians would have difficulty distinguishing the peer-reared animals from those that that were maternally reared.

The purpose of peer rearing is not to demonstrate that removing a monkey from its mother causes anxiety, a common misconception we have heard from people who have signed the petition.

Again: peer rearing was chosen because it is known to produce mild to moderate anxiety symptoms. With a group of animals predisposed to anxiety raised in a controlled setting, researchers can use state-of-the-art techniques to observe and measure even very subtle differences in brain chemistry and structure. Those chemical and anatomical differences may suggest new treatments — via nutrition, exercise, meditation, drugs or another approach — for people suffering from mental illness.

  • The animals in the study are not “terrorized,” and do not experience “relentless torture.” Most of their time is spent as a house pet would spend its days — grooming, sleeping, eating and playing with toys, puzzles and other animals.

On occasion, to assess the monkeys’ level of anxious temperament, they are observed under two anxiety-provoking conditions. The first involves the presence of an unknown person who briefly enters the room, but does not make eye contact with the monkey. The second involves the monkey being able to see a snake, which is enclosed in a covered Plexiglas container in the same room, but outside the monkey’s cage.

After each event, the animal’s brain activity is monitored by a non-invasive functional magnetic resonance scan, and blood samples are taken. The stress the monkeys experience is comparable to what an anxious human might feel when encountering a stranger or a snake or a nurse with a needle.

  • No one was “left out” of the review by UW–Madison oversight committees. Several university committees spent a great deal of time assessing Dr. Kalin’s anxiety research, and each committee found it to be acceptable and ethical. These were groups of researchers, veterinarians and public representatives tasked with considering animal research on ethical grounds, and with ensuring potentially beneficial research will subject the fewest animals to the least invasive measures.

As the petition notes, an animal rights group took allegations about the committee process to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. What the petition does not mention is that USDA conducted an investigation in August in response to that complaint. Inspectors found the complaint lacking merit, and the process to be entirely within compliance with federal regulations.

And, as with all animal research on campus, specially trained veterinarians will care for the monkeys involved and ensure that all the work is done in accordance with federal regulations enforced by the National Institutes of Health and the USDA.

The decision to study animal models to understand human psychiatric disorders is not made lightly. Roughly a quarter of the people in the United States, including children, suffer from mental illness. Their conditions subject them to immeasurable disability and dysfunction. And the worst outcome, suicide, is increasing and already among the leading causes of death in adolescents. To develop effective treatments that may alleviate the suffering of millions, it is necessary to understand the root cause of psychiatric illnesses.

In this case, the human suffering is so great that Kalin, the National Institutes of Health and UW–Madison’s review committees believe the potential benefit of the knowledge gained from this research justifies the use of an animal model.

More information on the anxiety and depression research is available at animalresearch.wisc.edu.

Related posts:

Child health benefits from studies of infant monkeys – Part 1

Harlow Dead, Bioethicists Outraged

Speaking of Research

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