Numbers don’t tell the whole story: 2017 US Annual Report

Science magazine recently published a brief article with an eye-grabbing headline: “U.S. labs using a record number of monkeys.” The article has a colorful graph to match, showing the number of monkeys in research over the past 10 of the 45 years that numbers are available.

The article focuses almost exclusively on work funded by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), one of the largest funders of biomedical research in the world. On a quick read, one might take from the article that U.S. academic researchers have greatly expanded their use of monkeys. Writer David Grimm notes that the use of monkeys in research is: “up 22% since 2015 and 6% since 2008.” The graph below shows the same federally-collected data in the context of 1973-2017 (nonhuman primates in thick line). When using all of the available data, two things become clear:  1) compared to other animals, NHPs are used to a far lower extent; 2) the general trend in numbers of animals used seems to be fairly consistent across time.Given the article’s quote by Johns Hopkins professor Thomas Hartung: “People are just blindly running toward the monkey model without critically evaluating how valuable it really is,” along with the headline reference to a “record number of monkeys,” one might be led to believe that monkeys were being used research without thought or serious consideration.

Hartung, a professor of environmental health and engineering, is also associated with a center dedicated to alternatives to animal testing, focusing most of its work on toxicology and a narrow range of testing and research. It is possible that he is unfamiliar with basic – or fundamental – research in which alternatives do not yet exist and the use of a particular species must be justified as required by law and rigorous review of proposals for NIH funding. In any case, the article offers no evidence to support Hartung’s claim about the reason for the reported increase in animal numbers.

Why (and how) should scientists read the article?

Many scientists – particularly those whose expertise and experience are with NIH grants and animal research – are likely to dismiss the Science article, noting that the number of nonhuman primates in research varies over time for many reasons. But we’ll make the case here for why the scientific community should give more consideration to the role that Science articles can play in undermining public understanding of science. No reminder is needed that public understanding of science can play a role in public policy, funding of science, and advances in knowledge that benefit society, humans, other animals, and the environment.

So, let’s take a look at the article and what it says, but also what it leaves out and why that matters.

Imagine, for instance, that you take Hartung’s quote at face value and assume that a professor associated with Johns Hopkins University must be an authority on how animal research is conducted. Then imagine you have no information other than this particular article. Couple that with Grimm’s citation of a Pew poll:

“Public opposition to animal research has been rising—with a recent Pew Research Center poll finding that a record 52% of Americans oppose such studies. And importing monkeys to the United States has become increasingly difficult as almost all commercial air carriers now refuse to fly the animals.”

The problem here becomes immediately obvious. The article basically paints the picture that scientists have run amok and are choosing monkeys for science for no good reason, that most of the US public opposes animal research, and that it is so bad that airlines won’t even take money to transport the animals.

Then you read: “Nonhuman primate research has faced intensifying scrutiny. Harvard University closed its national primate research center—one of only eight in the country—in 2015, after a federal investigation into the deaths of four of its animals. That same year, NIH ended its support of all invasive chimpanzee studies, citing a report that found these animals were no longer essential to biomedical research. And in 2016, Congress directed NIH to hold a workshop on the utility and ethics of monkey research.”

Sit with that and imagine what you’d think if you didn’t have a full context about how scientific discoveries and medical advances occur and the actual rules, regulations, and process for decisions about the use of animals in research.

To be fair, it is also true that the article includes a set of quotes from scientists and research advocates. In the lead paragraphs a Tulane researcher is quoted and there is a reference to NIH’s objectives:

“I think the numbers are trending up because these animals give us better data…We need them more than ever,” says Jay Rappaport, director of the Tulane National Primate Research Center in Covington, Louisiana, which houses about 5000 monkeys. The increase also comes amidst a surge in funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which supports much of the nonhuman primate research in the United States.”

The article also makes a brief reference to medical advances and diseases that the U.S. public cares about and is affected by:

“The rising demand for rhesus macaques appears to be driven by researchers studying HIV/AIDS, the brain, Alzheimer’s disease, and addiction, according to an NIH report released in September.” And the story ends with: “’The public wants more cures, but fewer animals,’ says Cindy Buckmaster, board chair of the Washington, D.C.–based Americans for Medical Progress, which supports animal studies. ‘They can’t have it both ways.’”

We’d encourage our readers to read Grimm’s story, but not from the perspective of a scientist. Rather, read it as a journalist would, or a legislator, or student, or non-scientist, concerned citizen. What would you want them to know?

What is missing from Grimm’s Science piece?

Here are a few things, of many, that are missing. First is the entirety of how science works and why nonhuman primate studies are conducted. There are a good number of articles, reviews, and white papers (also see here, here, here) that succinctly convey why nonhuman primates are used in research, how the studies have advanced scientific knowledge and contributed to medical advances, and what review and oversight processes are in place to ensure a balance between scientific objectives and consideration of animal welfare.

Second is the complete lack of even a single mention in the article of pharmaceutical companies, contract research organizations, or privately-funded, private industry research and testing. Grimm’s article focuses almost exclusively on NIH-funded research. For instance, he says: “The increase also comes amidst a surge in funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which supports much of the nonhuman primate research in the United States.”

Why should the story be inclusive of facilities and work beyond that which is NIH-funded? One reason is that omission of a substantial share of the USDA-registered research facilities that house nonhuman primates and use them in research or testing can mislead readers in its suggestion that NIH research accounts for the numbers, the change in numbers, and the purpose for which the animals are in research. The graph below, from the annual data collected by the USDA, shows an estimate that roughly one half of nonhuman primates in research in the US are reported by private facilities that engage in pharmaceutical or commercial research and testing, most likely not in NIH-funded work.

The article’s omission therefore leaves out acknowledgment of a critical part of the basic science-discovery-medical advance pipeline. NIH-funded research historically and currently contributes fundamental scientific discoveries that advance society’s knowledge about biology, brain function, immunology, and a whole range of processes involved in health. The development of new treatments and prevention for disease in many ways depends upon, and benefits from, this fundamental knowledge and discoveries.

However, the development and testing of new drugs, devices, and treatments is largely (though not entirely) the role of pharmaceutical companies. Those companies may do the work themselves or they may rely on contract research organizations (CROs). Regardless, it is often the case that pharmaceutical companies play a critical role in using basic knowledge obtained from NIH-funded research to identify new treatments and then test them to determine whether they will work to help people, or other animals. Finally, under U.S. federal law and oversight by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), these companies are typically required to conduct animal studies as one step in a process meant to ensure that the treatments are safe and effective.

It is for these reasons that a representative view of the role of nonhuman animals in scientific discovery and medical advances should acknowledge not only NIH-funded research, but also the work of private companies. History shows that both play important and necessary roles to address health challenges to humans and other animals. Further, U.S. federal law requires that all institutions report the number of NHP used in research and testing and those data are made publicly available for both public and private facilities. Thus, an accurate story about a national report on animal numbers should clearly convey that breadth.

Does the story matter?

We could argue that articles like this are not particularly noteworthy, with only transient, and little, impact. But it is also true that what is happening at Science may appear quite odd. Reporting on anti-science rhetoric and opinion can be important because both can affect science policy, scientists, what science is conducted, and– ultimately– whether it guides decisions that affect society. But giving a voice and legitimacy to groups and individuals that are not held accountable for fact, reason, and consequences of their speech can have considerable negative impacts as well. At worst, it easily falls into the trap of false equivalency that rightly raises many concerns in media coverage and debate about science-related topics.

In this article, as in many of his previous, Grimm provides a platform for anti-animal-research groups and individuals. In this case, we see Mike Ryan at New England Anti-Vivisection Society using the animal numbers report to argue that it should provide evidence with which to pressure Congress:

“Other animal advocates hope the new statistics will move members of Congress to put greater pressure on U.S. agencies to reduce nonhuman primate use. ‘I think when Congress sees these numbers, things are going to come to a head,’ says Mike Ryan, director of policy and government affairs at the New England Anti-Vivisection Society in Boston. This week, Representative Brendan Boyle (D–PA)—reacting to an investigation into the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) by the Washington, D.C.–based animal activist White Coat Waste Project—sent a bipartisan letter to FDA asking it to review all studies involving the more than 300 nonhuman primates it oversees. ‘Painful primate testing is shameful, and it has no place in the 21st century,” Boyle tells Science. “It’s clear that federal agencies are still not doing enough to curb this appalling practice.'”

Consideration of the article might raise a question for the scientific community, including the organizations that represent it:  Is it fair to the American public to sit by quietly and ignore these articles? It is true that there are many, many issues that have much more immediate and important impact. But it is also true that articles like this have an effect, one that will ultimately have broad impact by jeopardizing the science that serves society.

To some, the science community is presumably represented by Science magazine. That may not be true, but neither is it obvious. In turn, quotes like those above provide credibility to perspectives that are virtually unvetted with respect to reality, fact, or potential outcomes. Missing, meanwhile, is a serious and thoughtful look at why animal research and testing—including primate studies—is conducted, why the number of animals varies over time, the way in which scientific objectives are balanced with animal welfare, how the outcomes benefit global society, and what the likely consequences to public health would be if animal research did not occur.

Science can do better.

Speaking of Research

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