On June 1, 2009, animal rights activist, Michael Budkie, submitted a letter of complaint (AR Website) to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), with the charge that scientists are performing duplicative research. Mr. Budkie’s complaint was based upon his own analysis of the publicly available information about research funded by the National Eye Institute, a division of the National Institutes of Health. Budkie’s complaint, related information, and press releases are posted on the website of Stop Animal Exploitation Now (AR Website)(S.A.E.N.). We feel that it is essential to point out that his analysis, through omitting critical details, presents a remarkable illustration not only of bias, but also a fundamental misunderstanding of the scientific process. Here, we identify his omissions and mis-representations and request a response to our challenges.
An Open Letter to Michael Budkie, Animal Health Technician, Stop Animal Exploitation Now
re: Research industry next to meltdown, charges watchdog; urges federal probe after study shows fraud in 26 laboratories, including Harvard, University of California
Dear Mr. Budkie,
You have recently requested that the federal government investigate what you represented as wasteful spending on health-related research. You believe you have identified an enormous problem with duplication of research, based on your perusal of some of the grant applications that the National Institutes of Health have funded over the past five years.
In an effort to understand your position, we have read your recent complaint to the USDA and looked closely at what you offer as supportive documentation. Here are some of our reflections.
Your spreadsheet shows that scientists engaged in research often use some of the same tools and methods to conduct their work. You are correct. The conclusion that their efforts duplicate one another, using more animals than is minimally required to advance science, is not.
Information on the approaches used to conduct a research project is found in the “Methods Section” of a grant application or manuscript. Unfortunately, you appear to have missed the pages of text that came before the Methods; in these sections, you find the nature of the problem being addressed by each research proposal. It goes without saying that – with respect to human health – there are lots of problems needing to be addressed, so part of what is discussed in a grant first is which ones are important and why. These sections also delineate what is already known and what isn’t. All of these points are addressed in grant applications and journal articles. They are found under sections such as Introduction, Specific Aims, Background and Preliminary Data. Together, all of those parts give the context and rationale for why each particular research project is needed and why the specific methods chosen are the best possible means of addressing the identified problem. According to your letter and spreadsheet it would seem that you have limited yourself to the methods used in the research, which does little to explain its context.
What you claim is that your “analysis” demonstrates that a large number of scientists are doing the same study (in some cases, over and over again for years). Essentially, you figure that if scientists are using the same kind of animals, the same kind of methods and the same kind of equipment, they must all be doing the same experiment. In turn, you suggest that the government is paying for the same experiment many times. You conclude that this is needless duplication—a waste of animals, time, and money. However, once again, you misunderstand, or misrepresent, that each of these projects is addressing very different problems, each with independent implications for our understanding of human biology. Indeed, to ignore the question and focus on the similarities of methods is kind of like saying that two farmers, both of whom are planting seeds in soil and using the same kind of tractor, are growing the same crop to feed the same family.
If ten scientists all use microscopes in their research and look at cells from the same kind of animal, are they all doing the same research? Maybe. Or perhaps one is looking at cells from breast tissue to determine whether they are cancerous, while another is looking at cells from brain tissue to determine whether they have abnormalities associated with Alzheimer’s disease.
Or maybe they are both looking at cells from breast tissue to determine whether it is cancerous. One is comparing the cells of an animal exposed to environmental toxins to cells from an animal that has not been exposed. That scientist’s goal is to learn how to make environments safer and reduce the risk of breast cancer. Meanwhile, the other scientist is evaluating the cells of an animal who received an experimental drug to treat breast cancer. This scientist’s goal is to determine whether a new drug, one that might be effective in treating breast cancer, is effective and safe.
Are these two scientists—both working with the same kind of animal, using some of the same tools and techniques, same type of cells, and studying the same disease—doing duplicative research? Is it the “same” experiment? Should we choose to do one and not the other because it would be wasteful to have two studies that might help prevent and treat breast cancer?
You must appreciate that while the scientific method requires replication of findings to assess their reliability, scientists cannot succeed in making breakthroughs that improve human and animal health if they simply duplicate what others have done. Furthermore, in exercising its responsibility for federal funds, the NIH will not provide support for grants that are not advancing research boundaries. What the concerned reader should know is that each of the grants listed by Budkie is among less than 10% of all applications that underwent rigorous review by a panel of scientists who made a recommendation to professional program officers at the NIH who are responsible for distributing tax-payer money effectively and equitably across scientific projects.
The scientific projects funded by the grants listed in your spreadsheet relate to one another as must all good science, but they certainly do not duplicate one another. For example, different grants support research on different parts of the visual system and different brain regions—all of which are important to vision. The diverse grants support research on basic visual processes, interactions of vision with other senses, mechanisms of visual attention, decision making, how movements of the eyes are controlled and how these processes affect vision. Many grants support basic research on fundamental processes, while others fund work focusing on clinical disorders such as amblyopia and strabismus.
If you add a couple of columns to your table – ones that focus on the problem that the research addresses, you would not only provide a more honest portrayal of the science you criticize, but you would also provide the basis for reasonable discussion. As it stands, your poorly-formulated complaints, self-referential, hyperbolic media releases and selective presentation of information all start to suggest that it is your industry trying to avoid meltdown, that is being rather too creative with the information you have at your disposal.
Speaking of Research