Nov 2019 Update: What’s happening with campaigns and legislation aimed at US animal research and testing

We wrote about the legislative efforts and campaigns targeting nonhuman animal research in the US earlier this year. There, we took a broad look at some current campaigns, discussed mechanisms for various types of legislative efforts, and made suggestions for action. Today we look at the current status of legislation we wrote about in July, new legislative efforts, additional campaigns against animal research at federal agencies, and a glimpse of how animal testing is featured in a 2020 US presidential campaign platform.

Photo: Kevin McCoy. United States Capitol in daylight. CC BY-SA 2.0

What’s in the news?

Scientific research at federal agencies has been the target of a range of campaigns with the singular goal of ending studies that involve nonhuman animals. These publicly-funded studies aim to advance scientific knowledge and address challenges to human, animal, and environmental health. The work is conducted by federal agencies charged with ensuring public health and using science to evaluate risks from foods, drugs, pollutants, infectious and other diseases, and to counter public health threats with evidence-based practices, policies, and treatments.

While those public agencies have long served societal and global needs, they have also found themselves under attack. In the case of scientific research that depends on studies of nonhuman animals, we wrote in July about how those attacks have included campaigns against research at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA); research at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA); research at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA); and research with nonhuman primates and other animals at the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH). To that list, we now add:

  • Research funded by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), that uses rabbits.
  • Research and testing required by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to evaluate the safety and impact of chemicals that will be released into the environment.
  • Medical training that involves live animals and is conducted via the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the U.S. Marshals Service (USMS) under the Department of Justice (DOJ).

A mix of strategies has been employed in campaigns against this research, training, and testing. Among them are the wide range of now (very) familiar approaches: website and social media posts, petitions, letters and op-eds, press conferences and press releases, billboards, event disruptions, and various other methods of garnering attention.

Legislative efforts targeting federally-funded and federal agency research

As notable among the efforts that can potentially affect animal research is the steady stream of bills introduced by members of the US Congress. The examples below are bills introduced in Congress this year. These bills are aimed at federally-funded research and research conducted within federal agencies.

The media releases accompanying these bills typically express little about concern for animals in privately-funded, commercial research. For instance, the PUPPERS Act is aimed at dog research in a federal agency, but ignores the majority of dogs that are used in research and testing in the U.S.—those outside of federal agencies and, particularly, those in private companies. For comparison, consider that the PUPPERS Act seeks to end some forms of research at the VA that reportedly involves 100 dogs or less. The total number of dogs in research in the US was 64,707 according to the publicly-available research annual reports posted by the USDA. Thus, the VA dogs would comprise less than 1/4 of 1% (0.15%) of the US total. In contrast to those 100 dogs in VA research, just four private companies— Covance, Charles River Laboratories Inc., Zoetis, and Summit Ridge Biosystems Inc.— accounted for roughly 14,438 dogs in 2018, or roughly 22% of all dogs in research in the US.

Canine research at the VA.

So why do legislators’ efforts primarily focus on animal research in federal agencies? There are likely many reasons, among them political expediency. Federally-funded research is a “soft” target because it is funded by the public and therefore falls more directly under congressional control compared to private companies. It is also more transparent. That is, more information is publicly available via federal freedom of information laws and, often, the agencies’ own websites. For example, note the VA website, fact sheets, and videos of VA dog research. In fact, White Coat Waste, one of the groups tightly associated with campaigns and bills opposing federally-funded research with animals has based many of their campaigns on information obtained as a result of the US Freedom of Information Act. Further, WCW has made it clear that they are not working to ban animal research and testing by private companies—even if those account for a much larger number of animals.

Status of bills aimed at federally-funded research

In July we examined four bills introduced this year, all centered on federally-funded research or research conducted by federal agencies. At that time, we noted that although a great deal of legislation is proposed by members of Congress, few bills that are introduced actually become law. So what happened with these bills?

Looking at the ticker (image below) for the PUPPERS Act, we can see that it remains in the “Introduced” phase, as do the other three bills from 2019. Three of the bills have gained co-sponsors. None appear to be supported by the entirety of the congressional animal protection caucus we wrote about in July that currently includes 147 of the 535 representatives and senators in the US Congress.
  • PUPPERS– Preventing Unkind and Painful Procedures and Experiments on Respected Species Act. Reintroduced by Reps. Dina Titus (D-NV), Brian Mast (D-FL) in February of 2019, the bill has the largest number of co-sponsors (118). However, it has gained only 6 sponsors since July.
  • HEARTS– Humane and Existing Alternatives in Research and Testing Sciences Act. Introduced by Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA) on Valentine’s Day 2019, it has fared the worst, with only 13 co-sponsors, and none added after July of this year.
  • AFTER– Animal Freedom from Testing, Experimentation and Research (AFTER) Act. Introduced by Reps. Jackie Walorski (R-Ind.) and Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.) in May 22, 2019, the bill has a total of 46 co-sponsors. It has gained the most since July, adding 13.
  • KITTENS– Kittens in Traumatic Testing Ends Now Act. Reintroduced by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) in March 2019, the bill has 71 co-sponsors, with 3 gained since July—Reps. Grace Napolitano (D-CA-32), Theodore Deutch (D-FL-22), and Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL-23)—all added in October.

In a Hill blog article in April, caucus leaders Reps. Vern Buchanan (R-FL) and Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) predicted 2019-20 to be a successful year for their legislation:

This session, the Congressional Animal Protection Caucus has an even more ambitious agenda. With more than 130 members of Congress, our caucus is committed to passing legislation that combats animal cruelty, ends painful experimentation on animals and permanently bans the slaughter of American horses for human consumption.” (emphasis added).

Contrary to Buchanan and Blumenauer’s hope, the bills impacting animal research that have been introduced by the congressional animal protection caucus, haven’t succeeded yet. Nonetheless, they deserve attention by the research community, as we explain below. Further, passing bills is not the only (or maybe even primary) action that can have real impact on animal research. Legislators can use other tools that are impactful. Those include insertion of language in reports that accompany congressional budget bills for federal agencies, political campaign platforms, and public support of decisions issued by heads of federal agencies.

More successful tools to negatively impact animal research?  Congressional committee report language and subsequent actions

While many think about changes in law as the single and most important venue to effect change, it is only one of many routes for impacting policy and real-world outcomes. This is true in the case of animal research, where one of the effective tools that legislators can use is offered by their membership on congressional committees that oversee the budgets of federal agencies, including NIH, the National Science Foundation (NSF), EPA, FDA, DOJ, DOD, VA, DHS, and others. In brief, members of those committees can ask agency heads questions, make requests, and insert language in budget bills.

An example noted in our previous post, is Rep. Roybal-Allard (D-CA) inserting language about NIH’s intramural nonhuman primate research program in a report accompanying the Fiscal Year 2020 House Appropriations Bill for Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education and Related Agencies (LHHS; see page 114). The non-binding language (see graphic below) directs the agency to prepare a report that addresses six items, including “a detailed strategy and timeline for the reduction and replacement of NIH primate research with alternative research methods” and a standard procedure for retirement of animals no longer needed in research. Subsequently, in an October 2019 letter, Rep. Roybal-Allard (D-CA) has directed the Director of NIH to provide additional information about the use of nonhuman primates in the intramural research program. In a September 2019 letter, she directed NIH to provide her with information on research with all other nonhuman animal species.

Report accompanying the Fiscal Year 2020 House Appropriations Bill for LHHS

Another path to effect change:  Congressional support for federal agency directives

Issuing directives is another path by which federal agency heads can effect change without using the bill-to-law process. The leadership of federal agencies consists of political appointees. Those appointees may (or may not) have depth of knowledge in the area they oversee. In turn, their directives may (or may not) be informed by expertise and serious, fact-based information about the likely consequences of their decisions. Further, those decisions can be highly biased by special interests and they may fail to inform the broad US public about the downsides and consequences the public will likely bear as a result.

FDA and National Center for Toxicological Research (NCTR): One example of federal agency head decisions that impact animal research is found in events last year that led to the end of research on the effects of nicotine on adolescent primates. As we wrote in January 2018, then FDA head, Scott Gottlieb, received a letter from anthropologist Jane Goodall in which she joined an anti-animal research group, White Coat Waste (WCW), in calling for an end to a scientific study at the NCTR. Gottlieb responded by launching an investigation and, ultimately, terminating the research. Throughout, members of the scientific community responded by writing to Gottlieb and signing letters expressing deep concern with the decision and the process by which it was reached. Those efforts appeared to have little effect. Meanwhile, tweets from legislators offered support to Gottlieb’s decision-making.

Ironically, the NCTR study was aimed at better understanding the health effects of nicotine–not tobacco–on adolescent health, a topic that would now appear to be of increasing public health interest given the rise in deaths due to vaping and the recent report that 1 in 4 teenagers in the US have vaped.

EPA: More recently, a September 2019 directive  from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator, Andrew Wheeler, targeted animal testing. Wheeler is a former coal lobbyist, not a scientist with expertise in evaluating chemical safety, as we’ve written previously. Wheeler’s EPA directive mandated an immediate drastic reduction and, in the relatively near future, a complete end to the testing of new chemical compounds in animals. Numerous legislators took to social media to show their support for the directive.

Such public displays of support shine a light on the congressional members’ understanding of, and position on, animal research and testing. What they do not shine light on is how the decisions will affect the US public, the environment, and the animals that will be exposed to chemicals overseen by the EPA. In the time since Wheeler’s directive, scientific and environmental organizations, experts in chemical safety, and hundreds of scientists have warned that the consequences of such a decision will jeopardize public, environmental, and animal health.

Indirect paths:  How animal research and testing became an issue in the 2020 Presidential campaign 

Another piece of failed legislation was introduced in 2018 by Senator Cory Booker. Booker, currently a Democratic presidential candidate, has not re-introduced that bill, the Primate Protection and Research Modernization Act. Many in the research community may believe that Booker’s failure to advance the bill or to re-introduce it means that it is not worth the time for consideration. We’d argue that that line of thinking is misguided and betrays a shortfall in understanding of both societal views and longer-term consequences that affect public health and scientific progress.

In fact, regardless of whether introduced legislation is successful in moving forward, it can lead to a shift public dialogue and perception. At the very least, it can shift what is known as the “Overton Window” (graphic below) in which the acceptability of views on a topic or policy change. In many ways, the various bills and legislation-adjacent efforts discussed above, as well as federal agency directives, may all be viewed as evidence of shifts in perceived public acceptability and popularity of positions on animal research and testing.

Source: Hydrargyrum [CC BY-SA 2.0] “Diagram of the “Overton Window”, based on a concept promoted by Joseph P. Overton (1960–2003), former director of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. The term “Overton Window” was coined by colleagues of Joe Overton after his death. In the political theory of the Overton Window, new ideas fall into a range of acceptability to the public, at the edges of which an elected official risks being voted out of office.”
Although Booker’s bill was unsuccessful and has not yet been re-introduced, the Senator and presidential candidate has included animal testing as part of his campaign platform. It is unclear whether he is focused only on testing for cosmetics, or if he favors a broad ban on research that depends on animal studies and a ban on animal use in safety and effectiveness testing for medical devices and drugs. He says he would:

“Immediately end all animal testing for cosmetics and develop scientifically reliable alternative methods in order to end all animal testing by 2025.”

Booker’s campaign statement could be interpreted in a number of ways. His 2018 statement accompanying his bill on primate research and testing clearly conflated animal research and animal testing.

“It restricts testing on nonhuman primates and require approval of new nonhuman primate testing by a committee of experts. To qualify for review by the committee, proposed testing must meet four criteria: (1) the research is for prevention, diagnosis or treatment of debilitating or life-threatening clinical conditions in human beings; (2) no alternative research method exists; (3) the nonhuman primates will be housed in an ethologically appropriate environment; and (4) a National Academies of Sciences review indicates that the use of nonhuman primates has an established history of advancing the field of research in question and has resulted in meaningful clinical interventions.”

Further, his proposal failed to account for the role of basic research as the foundation for knowledge and discoveries that make medical advances possible. As we’ve written many times previously, such basic research may not be immediately and directly tied to clinical application. Booker’s bill also does not appear to account for the existing framework for use of animals in research, given that such work already requires consideration of alternative methods.

Where Booker’s campaign statement is vague on what he means by “animal testing,” it is curiously specific on the date by which he thinks it can be ended: end all animal testing by 2025.The statement raises a great many questions: Why 2025? On the basis of what evidence? In consideration of what trade-offs in risk and benefit to public health?

Booker is not the only 2020 US presidential candidate to include animal welfare in their campaign platform. Julian Castro’s plan also calls for ending cosmetic product testing, but his statement is far less ambiguous than Booker’s. Castro says: “4. Prohibit the testing of cosmetic products on animals. No animal should have to suffer when we develop perfumes, colognes, and soap when there are humane alternatives.”

Is PETA’s view representative of the public majority?

One thing is certain—Booker’s statement is similar in style to the memo issued by Trump appointee EPA Administrator Wheeler which includes a plan to nearly eliminate animal testing by 2035. As we wrote last month, Wheeler announced the decision while sitting alongside representatives of PETA and other organizations opposed to animal research. Whether Booker is similarly informed and influenced by PETA and other groups may not be the question to focus on. Rather, we might ask whether Sen. Booker is also listening to the scientific community and taking into account fact, evidence, and the likely consequences to public health of decisions about the use of animals in research and testing.

For all of these issues, we should also keep in mind that appealing to extreme views often depends upon presenting animal research in a way that disregards two critical sets of information and consideration. First, core questions and positions that include:  Is the use of nonhuman animals by humans ever acceptable? When? For what purpose? Under what conditions? Which species? Second, factual information about the existing framework for decisions about animal use and care. To that list, we could add understanding of how and why scientific research includes animal studies; the harm of inaction; and illustration of how animal research has contributed to scientific and medical advances.

One reason that these questions may be ignored in favor of simply appealing to animal welfare is captured well by science blogger Drugmonkey (DM) in a 2009 post about polling data (image below).  In that post, DM points out that scientists and others concerned with animal welfare represent the broad majority, but that many discussions of animal use are based in a truncated distribution of attitudes, encompassing only one tail of the distribution. They argue“that the vast middle of the distribution is captured by people concerned with Animal Welfare in some manner. Those concerned with Animal Rights are in fact already pretty far out on the distribution.” In other words, those arguing from an absolutist position in which nonhuman animals should not be used by humans for any purpose (food, labor, clothing, entertainment, research, testing) do not represent the majority. Further, consideration of animal welfare is an explicit part of the balance in decisions about when, why, and how to conduct animal research and testing.

Used with permission from Drug Monkey blog.

What should the scientific community be doing?

Legislative efforts to advance public health, meet societal needs, protect nonhuman animals and the environment are all commendable. However, these efforts should be based on evidence and fact, and not grounded in ideology and spurious interpretations of data. Critical consideration must be given to what is proposed to be implemented and how.

As we wrote previously, tracking such legislation and speaking out about it is important. In light of the small percentage of bills that pass the House, Senate, and that are signed by the President, it is not uncommon to hear people brush off legislative initiatives that would substantially and negatively affect scientific research. Yet we would argue that these initiatives–no matter how unlikely to be enacted–are worth our attention and a deeper consideration.

As we said in July: “A basic political reality can be that it is relatively easy to make a case about “saving” kittens, puppies, and nonhuman primates. By contrast, it is more complex to present the moral dilemma and societal benefits of scientific research that depends on ethical, responsible use of nonhuman animals in research. The question then is how to ensure that public decisions are informed, accounting for the breadth and long-term range of likely consequences of those decisions. Providing accurate information about humane treatment of nonhuman animals is one piece of this and has been a focus for outreach and public communication. But ultimately, this approach may not do much to dissuade legislators from proposals like those highlighted here. What is needed instead is a clear articulation of the downside, the negative consequences, the harms—for the public, for society, the environment, other animals—of ending, jeopardizing, or compromising research.”

Summary: What can you do?

Legislative maneuverings to impede, hinder, and ultimately abolish all research with nonhuman animals are not in the best interest of humans, other animals, the environment, and society writ large. They threaten sound public policy that can have serious ramifications for scientific advancement, medical progress, and public health.

We previously provided a quick primer on the mechanics of some recent efforts aimed at impacting animal research through legislative endeavors. For some of our readers these campaigns will be familiar, but the question will remain: What can I do about it? Here are our suggestions.

For non-scientists, one thing to do is to be informed, ask questions, share factual information, and contact your legislators to let them know that you expect policy to be evidence-based, with serious consideration of the full range of consequences for decisions.

For scientists: As an informed scientific citizen, the obligation of a research community member is to respond to these challenges.

  1. First, be aware of the mechanisms by which Congress, federal agency leadership, and others can affect scientific research.
  2. Second, contact your institution’s government relations office to inquire about how they intend to respond to the bill that would seriously hinder vital research that is being conducted on your campus. If you don’t already know what office that is, or the people in it, take a few minutes to ask around–who in your university or company works on legislative issues? Are they already working on issues that affect scientific research with animals? Consider asking whether there is anything you can do to help, whether they have materials about animal research on your campus, or at your company, whether they will update you on how they advocate for research.
  3. Write a thoughtful, fact-based message to your own congressional representatives informing them about the importance of animal research in general and the relevance of the particular research, or animal model under attack. Explain the potential consequences of the legislation. Urge them not to support that and similar legislation. Don’t start or stop there though. Provide factual, concise, and accessible information that makes your case and helps others understand not just why animal research is conducted, but also how animals are cared for, how humane treatment is ensured, how the existing regulation, multi-tiered systems for review and oversight work. And, tell them what the consequences will be for ending this type of research. Invite them to contact you if they have questions or would like more information.
  4. Contact your scientific societies or professional associations and ask them how they are responding to legislation and other efforts to impede scientific research. Ask for specifics and ask how you can help lend your voice and expertise. If they do not have answers, ask them why. If they brush off your concerns by saying that bills are not likely to become laws, refer them to above and explain why other forms of congressional pressure matter. If they brush that off too, please contact us to share. We will be collecting the responses from scientists’ appeals to their scientific societies.
  5. Spread the word among colleagues, urging them to similar actions.

These are just a few of the many ways that you can take an active role to contribute to public dialogue that informs policy decisions–as many scientists, scientific, and advocacy organizations already do. We’ll be back with future posts focused on analysis of specific pieces of current legislation and legislation-adjacent efforts that could affect scientific research with nonhuman animals. In the meantime, let us know how you, your university, or your scientific organization are helping to advance thoughtful, serious, and evidence-based approaches to policy that affects scientific research with nonhuman animals.

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