University Leadership and Animal Research: A Dean’s perspective

I am a former NIH program manager and have been a research dean for almost 20 years.  I first had to deal with the effects of animal activism on research in 1984, when I was at NIH, and have worked on the issue ever since through my role at NIH, my scientific societies and my university.  I also use monkeys in my own research, am listed on animal activist websites and have received death threats.  I’d like to comment on the behavior of the Oklahoma State University administration that has turned down an approved anthrax study.

I find it both astounding and scandalous that an institution of higher education would surrender a research project in the face merely of anticipated animal activism, as the administration at OSU has intimated.  That this was a thoroughly reviewed biodefense study that could potentially contribute to national security, among the strongest possible research justifications, makes this action even more troubling.

This is a failure on several levels.  The OSU administration has failed to live up to its broad national duty to support biodefense research, even after receiving funds to build one of the scarce large animal BSL3 facilities in which such work can be safely carried out.  It has failed in its obligation to both its local and the broader scientific community by encouraging the violent tactics of animal extremists and not clearly articulating a defensible rationale for this unprecedented action.  And it has failed its duty to its faculty by not consulting with them before undertaking a potentially far-reaching move that can’t help but threaten their morale and weaken the overall research environment.

Universities should and can resist animal activists.  If nothing else, permitting emotionally driven activists to interfere with highly vetted and appropriate research challenges the very foundations of the university as a place of discovery, free inquiry and enlightened teaching.  One of the first goals of university leadership should be to uphold those principles.  But this strategic failure is only part of the picture.  The decision is ultimately self-defeating, both for OSU and the larger biomedical research community.  Giving in to terrorists, which is what animal extremists are when they abandon reasoned argument and resort to threats and violence, only reinforces their belief that violence can be effective against animal research.

Remarkably, OSU has capitulated to (of all things) imagined threats. The activists, of course, want universities to censor their own behavior, and to the extent that extremists feel that the use of violence will lead other institutions to behave like OSU, they will only be emboldened.  University leadership should be standing up to activists to enable their faculty to do the research that benefits us all, not trying to figure out how to avoid that role after the least provocation.

The University of California, Los Angeles eventually learned this lesson.  After several unfortunate instances it finally stood up for its faculty and to the activists, who were using public threats and physical violence to get their way.  UCLA took legal action against the extremists, it provided security for faculty who came under attack, and perhaps most importantly the chancellor delivered a strong statement in support of biomedical research.

Many institutions already knew these things had to be done and others have learned the lessons of UCLA and are moving proactively to protect their faculty and research programs.

I know university research administrators are often not loved by the faculty.  But there are many institutions where the deans use their resources to fully support appropriately reviewed and approved animal research, no matter what the species. This, frankly, is what you should expect from all of us.  We should work to supply an environment that fosters research and that supports you if the going ever gets tough.  Abandoning our faculty and mission in the face of animal extremist tactics should never be an option.  To do so because of something that just might be over the horizon shouldn’t even enter into the conversation.

David P. Friedman, Ph.D.

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.

3 responses to “University Leadership and Animal Research: A Dean’s perspective

  1. Oops, I forgot to include the link to the Science article

  2. The OSU controversy has caught the attention of leading scientific journals Nature and Science.

    In an editorial Nature states that “Although Hargis has the authority to make such decisions, this action seems arbitrary and ad hoc.” and concludes that “Imposing such a decision on the fly sets a bad precedent. Animal-research policies need to be guided by a moral compass — a consensus on what people find acceptable and unacceptable. Precisely because this issue is so morally and emotionally fraught, decisions by administrators should involve careful consultation with researchers as well as with all other members of university communities.”

    Science points out that “Those sentiments (expressed in an OSU statement-PB) seem at odds with the university’s recent investment in a new biosafety level 3 laboratory on the Stillwater campus, where Kurosawa’s research would have been conducted. When the lab opened in 2006, officials declared it would help position the university to bring in more federal money for research on biodefense and infectious disease.”

    I do hope that this unflattering attention might persuade OSU officials that they have made a terrible mistake, though judging from recent statements by Hargis (who said that not speaking first to campus scientists was a “rookie mistake”) and McKeever (stating that the decision only affects this specific project) they already know that they have made a right old mess of things.

  3. Nicely put. Of course many Universities are quietly suppressing “controversial” research programs and never coming to national attention. It is essential to keep the attention and heat on OSU so that other Presidents will know that these are not painless decisions. Would Hargis have done this if he thought the current criticism would occur? It might have balanced his secret concerns of which he will not speak.