Today’s Science live chat: Scientists discuss ethics of studying chimpanzees in captivity

In anticipation of NIH announcing a closely-watched decision on the potential retirement of hundreds of federally-funded chimpanzees, Science is hosting a live chat this afternoon at 3 p.m. EDT. The chat features several well-known scientists who will discuss some key issues relevant to the future of chimpanzee research, including:

“What, if any, research should continue with captive chimpanzees? Are there ethical ways to conduct biomedical studies on our closest relatives? And what do behavioral studies of captive chimps reveal that cannot be learned from studying chimps in the wild and vice versa?”

Scientists contributing to the discussion include:  Prof. William Hopkins, a psychologist who studies behavior and the neurological correlates of various aspects of cognition in chimpanzees. His research has focused mainly on language and communication, handedness and social behavior. He is based both at Yerkes National Primate Research Center and Georgia State University, both in Atlanta. Prof. Pascal Gagneux, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California at San Diego. His work includes field studies of chimpanzees in the Taï Forest, Côte d’Ivoire, as well as laboratory research that relies on biological materials from wild and captive chimpanzees. Prof. Brian Hare, an evolutionary anthropologist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, who has previously been active in advocating for ending much captive chimpanzee research. Hare’s research includes behavioral and cognitive studies of both chimpanzees and bonobos living in African sanctuaries.

Over the course of the past several years the topic of captive chimpanzee research has received extensive consideration by the scientific community, the public, press, and the federal agencies that fund their housing, care, and much of the chimpanzee behavioral and biomedical research. We have written previously about a range of issues that should inform consideration and decision-making about the future of these animals, including those that seem to have received far less public attention than deserved. Among them are understanding of the current housing and care of the animals, responsible plans for the animals’ long-term care, and the definition of ‘invasive’ research.  The topics posed in the live chat description capture many of the central issues, though we would suggest that it could also be framed as “Is it ethical not to study captive chimpanzees?”

Consideration of both the use of chimpanzees in research, as well as responsible plans for their optimal long-term housing and care, are complex issues and deserve serious, fact-based discussion.  We these look forward to hearing today’s discussion with Profs. Hopkins, Gagneux, and Hare and appreciate their willingness to contribute to an important public discussion.

Speaking of Research

Previous posts:

On the definition of invasive research, including video of voluntary, cooperative blood sampling:

On the cost of retiring chimpanzees and federal legislation aimed at ending chimpanzee research:

Guest post by primatologist Dr. Joseph Erwin:

On the IOM chimpanzee panel: