Speaking of Research Calls for Support of Global Science: Stand Against International Bias and Reject PETA’s “Ethics Dumping” Accusations to Scientists Leaving Europe

February 13th 2020.

Tl;dr: Speaking of Research calls on scientific societies, journals, and other stakeholders to join us in standing up in support of global science and challenging xenophobia. We urge the following:

  • If you see bias, please do not ignore it. Ignoring actions and sustained campaigns of misinformation by groups fundamentally opposed to animal research such as PETA, is irresponsible. A lack of a public response to attacks on individual researchers and to campaigns based on prejudice and racism to disparage entire nations only emboldens groups whose agenda is antithetical to #globalscience #inclusiveness #respectfordiversity.
  • SR calls on scientific societies, academic institutions, and agencies that fund animal research to be more vocal in disavowing such attacks on individual scientists, and on science as a global enterprise. The risks to the health and wellbeing of humans and other animals, to the environment, and to society are too great otherwise.
Hands on a globe — Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

A new phase in PETA’s war on science?

Renowned neuroscientist Nikos Logothetis recently announced that he was moving to China to co-direct the International Center for Primate Brain Research (ICPBR) in Shanghai, with another renowned neuroscientist, Poo Mu-Ming, the scientific director of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Center for Excellence in Brain Science and Intelligence Technology. The move followed a vicious and drawn-out anti-animal research campaign that had profound effects on the research program Prof. Logothetis directed at a prestigious German research center.

Prof. Nikos Logothetis

News reports about Logothetis’ move emphasized the contrast between support and appreciation for scientific research in China and Germany. As reported by Gretchen Vogel at Science:  “The Chinese institute is building a new facility in Shanghai’s Songjiang district, which will house as many as 6000 nonhuman primates, including many transgenic monkeys. ‘Scientifically it’s incredible,’ he [Logothetis] says. ‘They have excellent groups working with CRISPR and genetic engineering.’ And, he adds, the acceptance of nonhuman primate research by authorities and the public in China is much higher than in Europe. They ‘know that no other brain (besides that of humans themselves) can be a true help in making progress.’ [Emphases added]

It is definitely not news to many, including the global scientific community, that Chinese scientists and research institutes continue to conduct cutting-edge science and to attract leading scientists from around the world for collaborative work has global biomedical benefits. The country’s investment in research is increasing at an unparalleled rate.

Compound annual growth rate of biomedical R&D expenditures by country, inflation adjusted, in percentages, 2007-2012. Source: NEJM; NIH.

That trend is not new either. In 2012 the New England Journal of Medicine published “Asia’s Ascent – Global Trends in Biomedical R&D Expenditures,” a report on global public and private biomedical Research & Development (R&D) investments from 2007-2012. The report sparked alarm at the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), according to an article headlined “America is losing biomedical research leadership to Asia.

The article describes NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins efforts to underscore: “to Congress the importance of NIH-funded research to overall U.S. economic activity. It advances scientific products and technologies, creates economic growth, supports high-paying jobs and enhances health and quality of life. ‘Across the board we need to turn this around,’ Collins said, according to a report in The Atlantic . ‘You look at what a country invests in research and development as part of GDP, as an indicator of the health of the [nation’s seriousness]. Right now we are at 2.6 percent. Many other countries are at 3 percent or above – they’re basically out to eat our lunch.’”

More recently, the Washington Post reported:

“Consider this statistic, published last week in the journal JCI Insight: In 2000, China spent only 12 percent of what the United States did on biomedical research (adjusted for purchasing power). By 2015, it far surpassed all other countries except for the United States, spending 75 percent of what we do on biomedical research (adjusted for purchasing power). Other studies have found similar trends in scientific fields outside the biomedical arena.” [Emphases added]

PETA’s response to global science

It is perhaps for this reason that an anti-animal research group founded in the US has identified a new tactic to target scientific studies that depend on the use of nonhuman animals. PETA is no stranger to criticisms and accusations of racism, sexism, and sensationalism in service of its absolutist agenda. The group has apparently added a new ploy to its repertoire: attempting to suppress publication of scientific findings depending on the country in which the work was conducted.

PETA has written to the Journal of Neurophysiology (JNP) demanding that any research Logothetis’ group conducts in China be barred from consideration for publication (letter here).

Click here for PETA letter 

We reached out to the journal’s publisher, the American Physiological Society (APS), to ask for their response to the letter. The journal’s editor, Dr. Bill Yates, responded with a clear statement that the society and journal would not engage in discrimination on the basis of the country in which research is conducted. 

The Journal of Neurophysiology received a letter from Emily Trunnell of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals asking the journal to make a blanket policy of refusing to publish research from certain countries.

The journals of the American Physiological Society have well-established ethical criteria for review of research involving both human and animal subjects.  Authors anywhere in the world who abide by these standards are welcome to submit their research for publication in our journals. 

When questions are raised about whether particular articles meet those criteria, these queries are handled in the strictest confidence.”

Although PETA may believe that this is a new topic, a simple scan of leading scientific journals will show that articles on new discoveries by Chinese scientists and international collaborators are nothing new at all. In fact, a comprehensive analysis of international trends in publication of scientific research in leading journals, in 2017, concluded that:

“As a readout of research output in the US compared with other countries, assessment of original research articles published by US-based authors in ten clinical and basic science journals during 2000 to 2015 showed a steady decline of articles in high-ranking journals or no significant change in mid-ranking journals. In contrast, publication output originating from China-based investigators, in both high- and mid-ranking journals, has steadily increased commensurate with significant growth in R&D expenditures.” 

While the findings were not specific to research with nonhuman animals, the analysis did include many high profile journals that publish basic research that depends on studies of other animals: Cell, Nature, Science, Journal of Cell Science, and FASEB Journal. Further, a simple search of the scientific literature and media reports about new discoveries easily highlights ongoing publications of animal studies from research institutions in China.

PETA plays on xenophobia and international bias

SR denounces the latest PETA campaign demanding that publishers of scientific journals not publish research that was conducted in countries such as China. PETA’s goal is presumably to  promote its own absolutist position—an end to all research with nonhuman animals, regardless of the consequences for human, animal, and environmental health globally. That goal is obviously thwarted when scientists respond to attacks in Europe by moving their work to countries where there is little support for this radical view.

With headlines such as “German Experimenter Dumps Ethics, Will Test on Live Monkey Brains in China” PETA is playing with public sentiments. The group falsely accuses Prof. Logothetis and others who conduct research in China or other parts of the world deemed to have poor standards of animal welfare, of renouncing ethics in favor of scientific glory.

Source: PETA

PETA’s campaign is not about factual or serious comparison of how research is conducted in different countries. Rather, it plays on xenophobia and counts on international bias in its audience to make the case for assuming that research in China must be at a lower standard than that in Germany.

As we wrote last week, international bias has no place in science. There are different standards, approaches, and frameworks for ethical consideration of research and decisions about animal care and treatment. No single approach or framework, however, is inherently better for animal wellbeing, public interest in scientific and medical advances, or the conduct of research. Nor can we assume that more “ethical” frameworks can be determined based solely on the country in which they originate. Further, to impugn an entire nation on the basis of perceived differences in moral values regarding the use of nonhuman animals by humans is not only xenophobic, but also ignorant with respect to serious consideration of a global science that is inclusive of diversity and reflective of reality.

Ethics-dumping”?

In its letter to the JNP editor, PETA asked that the Journal:

“… reject manuscripts submitted by authors who engage in forms of so-called ‘ethics dumping …’ PETA specifically accuses Prof. Logothetis of this so-called “ethics dumping.”

In her letter, PETA’s Dr. Trunnell tries to explain the accusation by invoking a European Commission (EC) report and using some selective quoting to say:

‘ethics dumping’ – which per the European Commission is the practice of carrying out research, which would be ethically unacceptable in Europe, in low- or middle-income countries ‘where strong legal frameworks and ethics compliance mechanisms may be lacking.’”

In fact, the EC report PETA references is quite clear:

“Practices defined as ethics dumping include carrying out research without ethical approval or insurance for harm that may occur during a study, exporting research samples such as blood or DNA without local authorisations, disregarding privacy concerns, exploiting vulnerable populations, or providing an inadequate standard of care in a clinical trial.”

In other words, to fit animal research conducted in China into the definition of ethics dumping used by the EC, it would be necessary to claim that animal research in China occurs without ethical approval or local authorization. This is simply not true and not supportable with fact.

The version of the same claim on PETA’s website, by contrast, simply conflates topics to make it appear that their view is consistent with the scientific community’s view: “Ethics dumping” occurs when someone can’t get away with an experiment in one country, so they instead perform it in a country with less stringent ethical and legal requirements for animal welfare. This shameful practice has been strongly criticized in the scientific community, but it still occurs. When PETA and its affiliates shut down Volkswagen’s shocking inhalation tests on live monkeys, there was speculation that the car manufacturer had carried out those experiments in the U.S. because they wouldn’t have been approved in Germany.”

In fact, the term “ethics dumping” has a long and specific history and has largely surrounded concern that

“due to the progressive globalisation of research activities, the risk is higher that research with sensitive ethical  issues is conducted by European organisations outside the EU in a way that would not be accepted in Europe from an ethical point of view. This exportation of non‐compliant research practices is called ethics dumping.”

This is in stark contrast to the common interpretation that European standards are superior to those of other countries.

As we wrote recently, the assumption that ethical standards in some countries or world regions are inherently superior to others is unwarranted. In reality, expecting that Western countries, the EU and US will continue as dominant in scientific research is not supported by fact. Further, scientific research cannot be limited by borders. What that means is responding to movement of science and scientists with slurs is not only wrong with respect to prejudice and bias, but also untenable as an approach to the future of science. The reasons that scientists move their research program from one country to another are no different from the movement of scientists from one institution to another within national borders — new scientific directions, better institutional infrastructure and support, career advances, and so on. Moving to a different country with a different set of regulatory standards does not automatically equate to adopting lower ethical standards. Ethical considerations and justification for the research remain the same in science, because it is a global enterprise.

~Speaking of Research

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