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.”
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: firstname.lastname@example.org