Certain government lobby groups, such as the White Coat Waste (WCW) Project, appear intent on casting scientists (the “white coats”) and the importance of their scientific work in a disparaging light. By focusing only on what they refer to as “wasted taxpayer money”, they ignore the very real scientific and human health progress that results from federal and other funding of research.
The WCW would have us believe that animal research is not worth the cost. Some media sources appear to be taking these claims as truth and propagating them without vetting the information being provided to them.
So, how do those claims stack up to the facts?
As we have done previously with other media coverage of animal research, today we fact check a recent article in the Washington Examiner. The article relies primarily on information provided by the WCW, including a highly edited video taken from a scientific paper on Parkinson’s disease in monkeys by scientists at Emory University and Yerkes Primate Research Center.
After reviewing the claims and facts, we found substantial evidence not only that WCW continues to fail to tell a complete and accurate story, but also of rather disappointing journalistic practices by media outlets that take the bait.
Join our social media movement to reduce scientific misinformation: If you suspect bias online or in news articles, tag them with #FactCheckNeeded or #AskScientists. This will encourage journalists to ensure that they ask scientists for comment and to fact check their sources.
SPEAKING OF RESEARCH FACT-CHECKING REPORT AND RECOMMENDATIONS
Prof. Chris Petkov, chair of the Speaking of Research fact checking panel
Is the scientific study important?
A Washington Examiner article states that a scientific study reported in the academic journal Cell Reports by Emory University and Yerkes Primate Research Center scientists which studied Parkinson’s disease in monkeys is not worth the cost, implying that it is not important. However, they do not justify why, in their view, the research is not important and appear to provide incorrect or misleading information about its cost.
Also, the Washington Examiner article only appears to obtain an opinion from Anthony Bellotti, founder of the WCW Project, and a US senator who may also have been misled by the WCW Project. This is rather odd, because the article is not an opinion piece (op-ed).
We contacted the study authors, the Emory University press office, and the NIH-funded U.S. National Primate Research Centers (NPRCs) for a comment. Each stated that they were not approached by the Washington Examiner nor given an opportunity to comment on the research study. In fact, no scientist, university, funder or charity organization with information on the topic appears to have been contacted or provided an opportunity to comment for the article.
Speaking of Research asked scientists who themselves do not work with Parkinson’s disease to read the scientific paper and comment on whether it reports an important finding. They read it and stated that it unmistakably reports an important discovery.
Moreover, the press release about the paper posted by the Emory University News Center clearly relays to any reader the importance of the work and why it required animal research.
Our scientists’ assessment
Parkinson’s disease (PD) is a highly debilitating disorder that affects about 1 million people in the US and many more globally. A person with Parkinson’s disease will gradually find it extremely difficult to move or will become unable to move.
Imagine being trapped in your own body, not being able to move properly, moving without control or only being able to move with great difficulty. This gives us a small glimpse into why the disease is so devastating for people affected by it, and also why it is vital for scientists to study the disease to improve treatment options.
Although there are drug treatments that have been used to treat PD, over the course of this progressive degenerative disease many people who live with PD may find that they do not respond as well to their prescribed drug treatment. The reasons for that are poorly understood.
The movement abnormalities in Parkinson’s disease arise because of a loss of the brain chemical dopamine in parts of the brain that are important for movement, for example the striatum. Thus, one of the main treatments for PD is to replace dopamine in the brain. If the dopamine replacement is effective it can set a person free, who previously found it difficult to move or control their movements, much as they would have prior to the disease.
However, in patients with more advanced disease, the response to dopamine becomes unpredictable. This often results in rapid fluctuations between an inability to move and uncontrolled, involuntary movements, characteristic of advanced Parkinson’s disease.
One hypothesis about the cause of these fluctuations is that they arise from abnormal excitability of nerve cells (neurons) in brain regions such as the striatum. Understanding whether this is the cause of what the scientists refer to as “instability in the response to treatment” could help to generate new treatments ideas or options for PD.
The scientific study in Cell Reports, criticized by the WCW and Washington Examiner article, addressed exactly this important question about brain function and treatment in PD. Relying on monkeys as a model for the disease, the authors of the paper test this idea with implications for improving treatment. A monkey model of PD is required because it is not possible to study the brain of humans in the ways needed to understand the disease or to model these disease symptoms with other animals.
Thereby, the work with monkeys is indispensable. However, as with other areas of research, many different and complementary approaches can provide a foundation for this discovery or be informed by it — including cell culture research, computer models, or studies with fish, rodents, and other animals.
What the study shows is that if the excitability of the neurons in this key brain region affected by the disease is controlled then that region’s response to dopamine stabilizes.
The research study demonstrates that a new medication can stabilize the (glutamatergic) excitability of neurons in the striatum, effectively treating abnormal movements in the animals. This is an important finding that may lead to the development of new and very much needed medical treatments for patients with advanced stages of Parkinson’s disease.
The scientific team’s discovery will require follow-up research, potentially also including a clinical trial in humans to demonstrate the safety and efficacy of any new treatment. But this is clearly an important step forward and a foundational step for forward progress.
As in the majority of medical breakthroughs and new treatments, the first step is to understand — at a fundamental and specific level — what is happening in the brain and body. That initial step does not produce the new treatment, but without it, developing new treatments and options would be like fishing for a needle in a haystack, hoping to get lucky.
What do the authors and others think about the paper’s discovery? The authors and the NPRCs were not approached for a comment by the Washington Examiner. They provided these comments:
“The study shows that hyperexcitability of neurons in the striatum is a key mechanism underlying motor symptoms, and that glutamate signals are a major contributor to this abnormality. This is very important because we cannot develop new therapies without identifying the mechanisms we need to target in order to improve the response to dopamine replacement. To date, many patients remain dependent on dopaminergic drugs that have limited efficacy to alleviate them of the debilitating symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.” – Emory University
Here is the consensus statement from the NPRCs on Dr. Stella Papa and colleagues’ manuscript referenced by the WCWP article:
“Nonhuman primates are critical to advancing our understanding of neurodegenerative diseases, including Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease, and provide unique insights not available with other models. The recent study from Stella Papa’s group demonstrated the benefit of suppressing specific excitatory neural pathways that are affected by Parkinson’s disease, information that has direct implications for the development of novel treatments for patients with Parkinson’s. Nonhuman primate studies have also played essential roles in advancing other treatments for Parkinson’s disease, including deep brain stimulation and the use of stem cells, and will be indispensable for the future development of new therapeutic strategies for neurodegenerative diseases, which will affect more than 8 million people in the United States by the year 2030.” Reference regarding neurodegenerative disease burden: Dorsey et al, Neurology 2013; 80:1989.
Does the edited video inform or mislead?
The Washington Examiner article not only relied on partial information, primarily from the WCW, but also includes a video edited by the WCW that seems to have formed the basis for the article.
The WCW project provided the Washington Examiner an edited version of one of the two videos that had already been made publicly available by Emory University and the Yerkes research team as part of their research paper publication in Cell Reports. The original videos can be viewed on the journal website and were posted there to illustrate the research discovery.
The first video shows how Parkinson’s disease affects the monkey’s movement even with the monkey receiving dopamine treatment. The second shows how improved treatment as discovered and described by the scientific team allows the monkey to be able to stand and walk largely without abnormal movements.
In stark contrast, the altered video by WCW on YouTube includes a creepy horror movie-style soundtrack and highly misleading text overlaid on top of the original video taken from the scientists’ research discovery and report.
It is telling that the WCW project seems to have ignored the second of the two videos, which shows the improvement of Parkinson’s disease symptoms in the monkey. In fact, the second video directly contradicts the idea that the research is useless because it clearly shows the treatment works to improve motor function in the monkey with PD symptoms.
Why would WCW ignore this important information?
One reason could be that the contrasting video would make it difficult for WCW to substantiate their claim of useless research. Instead, the WCW Project only edited the first video of the monkey, the video the Cell Report authors provided and which was intended to show the effects of the disease and the poor response to treatment. The WCW editing thus appears to have resulted in a video likely to misinform the public, the Washington Examiner and the US senator mentioned in the article.
Is the research worth the cost?
In the edited video, the WCW Project claims that the research cost $16 million dollars to conduct. The Examiner states that cost at $14 million (we also cannot understand the discrepancy in costs) and goes even further with the accusations.
The Washington Examiner journalist accuses Emory University and the NPRCs of not being transparent about federal grant funding and reporting commitments, accusing them of not abiding by the Stevens Amendment, which is legislation that all federally funded research needs to identify the funding source and amount.
Here is what the Emory and Yerkes press release states:
“This work was supported by NIH grants NS045962 and NS073994 (S.M.P.) and NS036654 and NS065371 (S.F.T.); SUNY Albany Research Foundation, and National Science Foundation (NSF) grant IOS1655365 (A.S.); and National Center for Research Resources (NCRR) grant RR000165 and Office of Research Infrastructure Programs (ORIP)/OD grant OD011132 (Yerkes National Primate Research Center).”
Federally funded labs are required to report the sources of their funding in media statement, as exemplified by this press release. The press release clearly lists the funding sources and the grant details can be searched for and found on the funders’ websites.
It is not clear how the Washington Examiner journalist would have missed this or not found it relevant information to include in their article.
The total cost that the WCW project states for the research is also highly misleading. The costs of scientific studies are a fraction of the sum total of all of the grants listed because co-authors have to list all of the grants that support their work, on any related projects they are working on.
Federal grants typically involve many teams that work on different aspects of the research question – mouse, monkey, human research, etc. So one cannot simply sum up the total and assume that it only funded this one scientific paper, when the actual costs of the study are typically a small fraction of the total grant amounts listed.
Let us now compare the animal research cost and its benefits to the societal cost and burden of the disease. This is a quote from a report conducted by the Michael J. Fox Foundation, a major Parkinson’s Disease charity in the US:
“The total cost of Parkinson’s disease to individuals, families and the United States government is $51.9 billion every year, with $25.4 billion attributable to direct medical costs (e.g., hospitalizations, medication) and $26.5 billion in non-medical costs like missed work, lost wages, early forced retirement and family caregiver time. This nearly doubles previous estimates and, for the first time, includes the various ways the disease affects a person’s finances and their ability to participate in the labor market.”
It follows that the cost of the animal research, which identifies a new potential treatment option for advanced stage Parkinson’s Disease, is by our calculations approximately 100,000 times less than the enormous societal cost of the disease. Cost aside, the disease burden and its impact on people’s lives is massive and clearly requires more scientific research.
Conclusions: Fact checking the Washington Examiner article
The research by scientists at Emory University and Yerkes is undoubtedly important, as originally stated in the article and their press release. We also find that the university appropriately reported their funding sources in the press release. We could easily find the grant funding amounts. We calculated the cost of the research study to be a very small fraction of the massive societal cost and burden of the disease.
The WCW Project distributed an edited video that was originally made publicly available by Emory University and Yerkes Primate Research Center as part of their scientists’ discovery. The use of videos and images of animal research in a way that can easily mislead the public, media and US legislators is not a new approach.
The Washington Examiner article also gets their facts wrong with the information that they cite from Emory University and Yerkes in several ways. The scientists that they criticize as not being transparent were in fact transparent about the grant funding sources and the information they include in their paper easily links to the US NIH’s public database that details funding amounts.
Unfortunately, it appears that the Washington Examiner took the WCW Project bait. However, this does not appear to be a “one off” for the Washington Examiner. A quick search shows that they regularly propagate this type of misinformation based on WCW edited images and videos apparently aimed to undermine the real scientific benefits of animal research. Not a shining example of journalistic integrity given also that no scientist, university, funder or charity organization with information on the topic appears to have been contacted for a comment.
By the same measure, the Washington Examiner is not transparent about its journalistic standards. We could not easily find a statement on whether they support ethical journalistic practices, which many other media sources make clear to their readers.
Also, the Media Bias Fact Checking resource has previously fact checked several Washington Examiner articles and conclude that this news outlet tends to be biased and factually incorrect. Their assessment is consistent with our independent report and conclusions here.
In conclusion, our report found that the Washington Examiner article is partial, factually incorrect and perpetuates information from the WCW project, an organization that doesn’t seem to care much about the benefits of federally funded science. While the WCW Project may feel free to disseminate edited videos and images in ways that encourage bias against animal research, the media outlets that sidestep scientists, their universities or funders become complicit in helping to propagate scientific misinformation.
What can we all do to identify and act on scientific misinformation?
The Speaking of Research #AskScientists and #FactCheckNeeded social media movement
We strongly recommend that the Washington Examiner and others examine this case and use it to improve journalistic practices. Most readers appreciate and reward the press for accurate and balanced reporting. Readers do not appreciate being misled or misinformed.
Here are a few simple tips for improving your ability to recognize bias and (in seconds) to act to hold news sources to a higher standard.
- News agencies beware of misinformation: The Washington Examiner article is an example of a news organization that thought they had an exciting story to tell of wasteful government spending. The bias in the WCW project that provided the basis for the article could have been easily recognized if the author and editors of the Washington Examiner article had cross-referenced their primary sources of information or read the information that they criticize, which was already publicly available in the press release and scientific paper. Given that the study was on scientific research and funding, the Examiner should have asked the scientists, their university, patient charities or funders for a comment. We encourage news organizations to be transparent about their journalistic practices by making publicly available their journalistic principles and ethics statement.
- Legislators beware! You, too, may be swayed by sources with misleading Please #AskScientists, their institutions and funders. Ask your staff to check and cross-reference the information you obtain, particularly if it comes from an activist group. Do your own fact checking on things that might seem inappropriate (like clearly edited videos and images). Help your colleagues to recognize and identify bias and tag information on social media with #FactCheckNeeded.
- Improve your own bias detection skills and support responsible media sources: Many media outlets are working towards better accountability and transparency on their journalistic procedures. Support the ones that do. Resources like Media Bias Fact Checking can tell you if your daily read is likely to be credible and factually correct.
- What can we all do when we recognize bias? The next time you read an article that may be misrepresenting science, simply re-post it with the tag #AskScientists or #FactCheckNeeded. Hold your media sources to a higher standard, so that we can better trust the information that they provide. Support sources that are transparent and accountable.
Please join our social media movement by sharing this article and improving your ability to sniff out and tag scientific misinformation. Using the following tags: #AskScientists and #FactCheckNeeded will help to encourage media sources to be accountable and transparent about their journalistic practices.