Tag Archives: University Donor

OSU President Yet to Explain Decision to Cancel Primate Project

The rapidly growing controversy over Oklahoma State University’s President Burns Hargis decision to cancel a research project has attracted national attention for a number of reasons.  The November 30th Daily Oklahoman report on Hargis’ decision has ignited discussion and calls for both reversal of the decision and accountability in addressing the many questions that have been raised about decision-making at OSU. Science bloggers—including ERV, Drug Monkey, and Scicurious at Neurotopia– and commentary by their readers highlight the range and type of concern. Speaking of Research provided analysis that places the single research project into the broader context of OSU’s efforts to grow its research program over the past several years. Science magazine’s Greg Miller reported on the story in Science Insider. On December 2nd, the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, the largest coalition of biomedical research associations in the United States, representing 22 scientific societies and more than 90,000 members, released a statement:

The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) finds the reports of the cancellation of an anthrax study involving nonhuman primates at Oklahoma State University (OSU) to be troubling. ‘We are concerned that this undercuts the role of the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC), and blocks the use of appropriate animal models in crucial biodefense research,’ said FASEB President, Mark O. Lively, Ph.D.

Animal activists groups have also joined in.  Hargis has been praised for his action by Madeleine Pickens, wife of wealthy donor T. Boone Pickens, on her website. Re-posting a story from DVM Magazine, Pickens places her commendation in the article’s title, adding to it “Kudos for a Great Decision!” and underscores the statement within:

a ‘generous benefactor’ to OSU and her ties to the Humane Society of the United States may have played a role in the termination of the project.

Speaking of Research encourages interest and public dialogue about the role of responsible use of animals in research.  We also call for attention to the major issues raised by this situation, which are:  Who should be empowered to interfere with funded research, and by what process should this occur?

Disagreement about the use of animals in research, about specific procedures, allocation of resources, and national funding priorities are all issues that merit national, public dialogue with an engaged citizenry.  These issues should not, however, be settled by the actions of a single individual who seeks to overturn the decisions and interfere with the processes of the many that are involved in distribution of federal and state monies, scientific review, and institutional oversight of research.

On Friday, an opinion piece by Hargis, formerly a businessman, appeared in the local newspaper and appeared to have the goal of reassuring Oklahomans and others that his decision was in the best interest of his university. The piece is titled “OSU’s best interests at center of decision.”  Others have provided analysis of potential problems with his statement and have called for him to address questions that still remain unanswered. Speaking of Research agrees that there are many questions that Hargis has dodged in his statement and we will return to more detailed analysis of those in a subsequent post if they remain unresolved.

Of immediate concern however, is the fact that Hargis appears to feel confident that he is not only competent to make decisions about scientific research, but is also correct to do so based upon consideration of narrow interests.  We disagree.  Hargis is interfering with research that is part of a much larger family of work that addresses essential questions with relevance to human health. The research at the center of this controversy is a line of work undertaken because it reflects research priorities identified not only by the scientific community, but by state and federal agencies.

The line of research that Hargis is interfering with is aimed at evaluation and development better vaccines to protect our troops and our citizens against bioterrorist agents.  Although Hargis is attempting to focus attention on a single project, the implications of his decision-making about this project are much broader.  Allowed to stand, the consequences of this decision will go well beyond the local community and have the potential to influence the course of bioterrorism research.

It is possible that Hargis does not understand the process by which decisions are made about dedicating resources and funds for research by federal and state agencies. It is also possible that he does not understand the process that moves science and health research forward.  Scientific progress and advancements in medicine most often depends upon interconnection between research projects, collaboration between scientists at different institutions, and sharing of resources and facilities.  The project at OSU appears to exemplify this, with collaboration and sharing of resources and facilities between scientists at OSU and other institutions.  Rather than recognize this strength, Hargis has leveraged it to explain his action, saying:  “The financial impact to OSU would have been minor and OSU’s role would have been limited…”

Burns Hargis

It is hard to believe that Oklahoma’s citizens and elected officials would support Hargis’ decision to act according to such narrow interests.  Although Hargis is charged only with leading OSU, it would seem that he should also be held responsible for serious consideration of how his actions affect the broader public, including the state and federal interests that underlie funding for OSU’s facilities.

Clarification and explanation of many aspects of the OSU situation remain to be provided by OSU’s administration.  We hope that this clarification is forthcoming and that Hargis will make himself available for an open public discussion of the situation rather than issuing statements or op-ed pieces with scant information.  Thus far, to our knowledge, Hargis has failed to hold an open press conference, nor have state officials or regents addressed the issue publicly.

Of the many questions that remain to be addressed, one is whether Hargis has used his office to subvert public processes in an attempt to support the agenda of animal activists. In his op-ed, Hargis appears to deny animal activist influence in his decision:

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

The appearance of the congratulatory post on activist Madeleine Picken’s website, along with a previous controversy involving OSU and Pickens, conveys, however, the impression that Hargis’ attention is to wealthy donors rather than to national priorities for public health research.  Applauding Hargis’ action is, in many ways, applauding a course of action that is in opposition to democratic process.

If Hargis wants to make his office the arena for both dialogue and debate about animal research, Speaking of Research will applaud his desire to engage in an essential discussion.  What should be understood by Hargis and others is that interfering in a line of research already endorsed at federal, state, and local levels is an action that is deeply troubling and will receive widespread attention until it is reversed. Hargis is presumably accountable to the state legislature and citizens of Oklahoma.  If he is unwilling to provide clarification about this situation in a manner that addresses the many questions raised, we ask that others step in to do so.  Contact information for state officials is below.

Allyson J. Bennett, Ph.D.

Speaking of Research

The views expressed on this blog post are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of my employer, Wake Forest University Health Sciences.

 

Oklahoma’s two Senators are:
Tom Coburn, M.D. http://coburn.senate.gov/public/
James M. Inhofe http://inhofe.senate.gov/public/
and their Congressional Representatives are:
Dan Boren  http://boren.house.gov/
Tom Cole  http://www.cole.house.gov/
Mary Fallin  http://fallin.house.gov/index.html
Frank Lucas  http://www.house.gov/lucas/
John Sullivan http://sullivan.house.gov/
The appropriate people to contact in the Oklahoma State legislature are
probably the members of the Higher Education and Public health
committees in the House of Representatives
http://www.okhouse.gov/Committees/Comm_CommitteeMembers.aspx?CommitteeID=70&SubcommitteeID=0
http://www.okhouse.gov/Committees/Comm_CommitteeMembers.aspx?CommitteeID=74&SubcommitteeID=0
and the Public Safety and homeland Security committee in the state
Senate, who can be found starting from.
http://www.lsb.state.ok.us/

Oklahoma University President Interferes with Federally Funded Health Research

 

Call for Support of Oklahoma Scientists and Research Programs

 

Speaking of Research, along with scientists and others across the country, were appalled to learn yesterday that Oklahoma State University’s President cancelled a research project for which his university had already accepted federal funding and which had been approved at all levels of review by both the federal funding agency, the National Institutes of Health, and the university’s own Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee.  This grave threat to the academic freedom of researchers in Oklahoma should be a wake up call to investigators around the world.  Reported in the Daily Oklahoman newspaper yesterday by Susan Simpson:

“Veterinary medicine researchers were told by e-mail last month that OSU President Burns Hargis wouldn’t allow the National Institutes of Health-funded project, even though an internal faculty committee had spent more than a year setting out protocol for the care and use of the primates. Veterinary scientists say the decision was sudden and arbitrary, and now they fear the president may call for ending other projects involving animal research.”

All evidence appears to support the conclusion that OSU’s administrative decision was made unilaterally by the President and, most likely, without consultation of the faculty, scientists, or the broad community.  A university spokesman, Gary Shutt, explained the administrative reasoning as follows:

“this research was not in the best interest of the university. The testing of lethal pathogens on primates would be a new area for OSU that is controversial and is outside our current research programs.”

It may be the case that OSU’s administration is afraid to support what is perceives as controversial or novel research; however, as a growing number of people have pointed out, it seems more likely that Hargis may have been influenced by an animal activist agenda and the opinions of a wealthy donor.  Two science blogs responding to yesterday’s story provide more information and insightful commentary. In a post titled “OSU President Blocks NIH-funded Science to Appease Philanthropist,” science blogger Drug Monkey summarizes:

“OSU, you may recall, already caved to the threats of one Madeleine Pickens, wife of gazillionaire T. Boone Pickens. Earlier in the year she objected to the OSU Vet school using dogs for research and training and held a $5M donation to OSU over their heads. Now, the link to her own site is the best I could do for confirming the fact that OSU actually responded to her extortion (yes, I realize they were under no obligation to accept her money; this is still extortion) but it certainly sets a tone.

This recent move suggests that the OSU did indeed cave to Ms. Pickens’ demands. Furthermore it confirms exactly why it is inadvisable to accede to terrorist demands- it just encourages them.”

Faculty at OSU, speaking out in the local newspaper, also expressed belief that Hargis’ decision was influenced by a political animal rights agenda:  “Veterinary scientist Richard Eberle said the faculty believes Hargis’ ruling was influenced by an animal rights advocate or other organization. He fears the decision will jeopardize future projects as well.”

Hargis

They also point out that the research is part of a much larger investment made by the state of Oklahoma and other funding sources that contributed over the past several years to construct state-of-the-art biosafety laboratory facilities at OSU.  The facility was built with the express intent of supporting nonhuman primate research and under the condition that it would also be accessible to researchers at other Oklahoma institutions. Veterinary doctor Michael Davis said in yesterday’s newspaper account:  “The project was to be conducted in a multimillion dollar lab at OSU designed for research on bioterrorism agents. Davis said administrators have known for years that primates would be used in research in the new lab.”

An October 2006 press release from OSU announced the new facility and “recognized the Presbyterian Health Foundation for its investment in veterinary medical research at OSU. The result of a partnership marked by the foundation’s $1 million gift to the veterinary center, the facility greatly expands capabilities for biodefense and emerging infectious disease research.”

In the same release, Dr. Michael Lorenz, professor and dean of the veterinary center, explains the importance of the facility and research:

“We believe there is but one medicine, and it is comparative,” Lorenz said. “We offer the biomedical community in Oklahoma a cadre of comparative medical scientists capable of addressing a variety of important medical diseases. The zoonotic diseases and emerging infectious diseases are increasingly important to both animal and human health, and this facility greatly enhances our ability to study the pathogenesis, diagnosis, treatment and prevention of these agents.”

According to a report made to the Oklahoma State University/A&M Board of Regents in Stillwater, Oklahoma in July of 2007 by OSU’s Stephen W.S. McKeever, vice president for research and technology transfer, and titled “State of Research 2007: OSU growing a national, competitive research program:”

“OSU has the highest concentration of Biosafety Labs in Oklahoma (13) and state-of-the-art labs located in Venture I at the Oklahoma Technology & Research Park. OSRHE funds supported 21 new faculty in physics, microbiology, electrical engineering and chemical engineering. The National Institutes of Health awarded up to $40M task funding to the College of Veterinary Medicine as a result of these world-class facilities (approximately $8M to date).”

The report concludes with:  “Bottomline: Investment in research pays off-educationally for students, financially for the university and economically for the state.”

Hargis’ decision to cancel a research project at this time–after accepting the funding for a multimillion dollar construction project and federal research funding—should merit more explanation to his faculty, his community, and the public that supports federal research funding than the explanation he offered yesterday via his spokesperson.

According to the U.S. government website that tracks federal research funding, the state of Oklahoma received $68,050,369 from the National Institutes of Health in 2008.

It is unclear whether the Oklahoma’s board of regents has full knowledge of Hargis’ decision and whether it is supportive of this kind of behavior.  We hope that the regents will speak out on this issue and clarify their position.  Furthermore, the regents could introduce a new policy whereby in cases the where university administration wishes to change its stance on some types of animal research it should do so only after full consultation with the departments and individual scientists who would be affected, and such changes should only apply to project applications initiated after the change in policy has been announced.

OSU and its partner institutions, including other universities and medical research facilities in Oklahoma and beyond, are home to scientific resources and leading scientists that are important to many areas of research aimed at improving human and animal health.  We hope that the scientists in Oklahoma who now face this attack on their work receive visible, vocal, and immediate support from their local community—including other faculty, but also students, the public, and administrators.

Certainly, it is hard to believe that the citizens, elected officials, and others in Oklahoma would be untroubled by what appears to be an open threat to the integrity and strength of their university system.

Support from the broad scientific community in the US and growing media coverage also means that the decisions and actions taken by OSU and its President will receive attention nationally from many scientists and others who are concerned not only about biomedical research, but also about academic freedom and our nation’s commitment to science.  The manner in which this case is handled has implications that go well beyond Oklahoma, but unfortunately President Hargis’ actions have already drawn negative attention to the university and have the potential for long-lasting negative consequences to its reputation. As one of its faculty pointed out in the Oklahoma newspaper:

“OSU is now seen by researchers at other institutions as an unreliable research partner and afraid of animal rights demonstrators,” Eberle said. “It is sad that such a golden opportunity for OSU and the state of Oklahoma to attain national recognition has been missed as the result of a single individual’s decision.”

Finally, the events that transpired at OSU highlight the need to ensure that investigators hired to conduct biomedical research with animals have an assurance that they will be supported by their institutions and its officials.  One obvious problem is that university administrators change over time and, what one administrator considers acceptable research may not be viewed as such by another.   The only viable solution to this problem seems to be some type of enforcement from NIH.  While NIH cannot dictate the policies of each institution regarding animal research, it could certainly ask from each institution for an assurance that once the IACUC has approved a protocol and a grant has been awarded, that the institution will support the research throughout its funding period.  Such an assurance could be made part of the same compliance assurance filed by each institution with NIH in order to obtain funds for animal research. Failure to comply with the assurance could result in similar penalties as those incurred in violating compliance issues, including the potential loss of future funding and the renewal of existing projects.   Unfortunately, it seems that only when an institution sees risking their entire biomedical research enterprise that they will decide to defend it as a whole.

Speaking of Research calls on all those who support OSU’s scientists and the broader community engaged in collaborative research with OSU to offer their support and encouragement for a rapid resolution of this problem.  Contact information for President Hargis, the Board of Regents governing OSU, and Oklahoma’s elected official are provided below.

Speaking of Research

CURRENT MEMBERSHIP of the BOARD OF REGENTS for the
OKLAHOMA AGRICULTURAL AND MECHANICAL COLLEGES

Mr. Calvin J. Anthony (Stillwater) – Chairman
Mr. Greg L. Massey (Durant) – Vice Chairman
Mr. Fred L. Boettcher (Ponca City)
Mr. Douglas E. Burns (Norman)
Mr. Joe D. Hall (Elk City)
Mr. Jay L. Helm (Tulsa)
Mr. Andy Lester (Edmond)
Mr. Terry L. Peach (Mooreland)
Mrs. Lou Watkins (Stillwater)

EXECUTIVE SECRETARY – Dr. W. Douglas Wilson

OSU/A&M Board of Regents | 2800 N. Lincoln Boulevard | Oklahoma City, OK 73105
Voice: 405-521-2411 | FAX: 405-521-2501 | E-mail: board@okstate.edu