Tag Archives: Barbara King

Opinions, evidence, and anti-research agendas: A recap of a session at the American Society of Primatologists/International Primatological Society Meeting 2016

Research with nonhuman primates in laboratory settings is a tiny fraction of both laboratory research and nonhuman primate research. The topic is of disproportionate interest, however, for many reasons, and is reflected by a recent symposium at the joint meeting of The American Society of Primatologists and International Primatological Society. The session was titled “Use and care of captive non-human primates: Evaluating and improving ethical requirements.”  The session was notable for a number of reasons.

  • Despite its inclusion in the scientific program of scientific societies, the session presented little evidence and little balance.
  • The panelists were tied to organizations and/or campaigns opposed to laboratory research with nonhuman primates, yet did not disclose these ties upfront and failed to provide their basic starting assumptions or to acknowledge their positions.
  • The fact-less rhetoric did not provide a basis for productive discussion about captive primate care or changes to existing regulations, as would have been provided with evidence-based presentations.
Rhesus monkeys at the California National Primate Research Center. Photo credit: Kathy West

Rhesus monkeys at the California National Primate Research Center. Photo credit: Kathy West

Starting assumptions

We wrote yesterday about why providing basic starting assumptions is key when entering any dialogue, particularly when that dialogue involves conversations about the ethical and moral considerations related to the use of animals in biomedical research. If basic starting assumptions are not put forth at the start of a dialogue, then potential areas for agreement cannot be identified – if they in fact exist at all.

Unfortunately, this tenet was not practiced during the symposium. The organizers, anthropologists Drs. Barbara J. King and Marni M. LaFleur, wrote that the symposium was intended to“invite IPS and ASP members to come together and discuss how we may best manage the care and oversight of captive-living nonhuman primates.” At face value, this invitation seemed like a safe haven for “discussion and collaboration amongst researchers, veterinarians, technicians, and caregivers.” (In fact, data-driven sessions like these occur regularly at ASP meetings amongst the experts who care for and study captive primates.) However, the organizers and panelists failed to disclose their basic assumptions upfront, namely that they oppose the use of nonhuman primates in biomedical research.

Several speakers in the symposium have affiliated with campaigns by PETA, an organization that very clearly offers an absolutist position stating that animals should never be experimented on. The Vice President of Animal Research Issues at the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), Kathleen Conlee, was also featured. HSUS’ position is less clear, though one of Conlee’s slides stated that the organization’s aim is to “Promote 3R’s but push for replacement of invasive research as quickly as possible.”

Macaques. Kathy West. CNPRC. 17

Macaques. Photo credit: Kathy West

As many attendees of the session attested after it concluded, the panelists’ failure to establish positions upfront resulted in a session with a very narrow focus that did not actually result in constructive discussion. Although the speakers’ stances on biomedical research were not stated upfront, they became readily apparent in each presentation.

The symposium followed a roundtable format, with the 6 speakers each presenting for about 5 minutes and a Q&A session for about an hour and a half afterward. Notably, the speakers did not include information on the well-established regulations and processes that are in place to balance research objectives, animal welfare, and public interests in scientific advances. (In 2015, ASP held a roundtable that thoroughly addressed these topics with evidence-based material.) Some presenters did show historical timelines of a few pieces of legislation enacted to address and ensure animal welfare (e.g., the passage of and amendments to the Animal Welfare Act), though nearly all presentations were lacking in evidence-based arguments. Instead, they often relied on outdated and out-of-context photographs (some from undercover investigations, which Conlee proudly acknowledged to the audience that HSUS had undertaken). Granted, the 5-minute time-slot for each speaker precluded the ability to delve into details, but one has to wonder if this format was a means to deliberately exclude the evidence-based regulations and processes that exist for laboratory animals.

Macaque. Kathy West. CNPRC.

Macaque. Kathy West. CNPRC.

Who should evaluate primate research?

The first speaker, LaFleur, wrote in the abstract of her presentation: “Ethical standards and cost-benefit analyses of non-human primates in research must continually be evaluated and reevaluated, by a diverse range of experts (including those without vested interests).” By “vested interests,” LaFleur presumably meant those working in primate research. What wasn’t clear is whether the panelists believe that they themselves and organizations such as PETA and HSUS also have clearly vested interests. For example, PETA has an extremely vested interests in this issue, yet nowhere during the session was it disclosed that panelist King has worked actively on campaigns organized by PETA (for other panelists’ ties to PETA; see below).

Most important though, from the perspective of beginning with fact:  The analyses of non-human primates in research to which LaFleur refers already routinely occurs by experts in the field: the trained scientists, veterinarians, and colony managers, including many members of ASP, who work with primates in captive settings on a daily basis and dedicate much of their research programs toward understanding and improving their welfare (see, for one recent example, this special issue of the American Journal of Primatology, dedicated solely to the well-being of laboratory nonhuman primates).

LaFleur also wrote in her abstract, “I argue that experimental procedures which cause permanent and irreversible harm on individual non-human primates should not be deemed ethically permissible.”

Macaques. Kathy West. CNPRC. 19

Photo credit: Kathy West

Yet, LaFleur failed to make a clear case for exactly why her position is justified in a way that is more appropriate than the position held by others who were part of the multi-level review that weighs scientific objectives and animal welfare and grants approval for research projects.

Furthermore, the slides that LaFleur presented at the conference showed data-free descriptions not of experimental procedures broadly, but of a single research topic. Her focus was on studies of infant development in monkeys (work she termed “maternal deprivation”) at the NIH and the criticism that she, King, and others leveled at ASP in regards to the society’s open support for research at the NIH. For example, in one of her slides, LaFleur stated that 54 members of ASP had signed a letter she co-authored to ASP asking for a reconsideration of their support letter for an NIH research project. In fact, in reading through the list of signatories, it is not at all clear to long-time members of ASP whether many of the signatories had ever been members of the society. One must question why this misinformation was presented at such a large meeting and also why this single research topic was the focus.

Another slide asked the question, “Can we not have differing opinions from our friends and colleagues?” Of course differing opinions may exist. What we strive for, however, are regulations and policies that are based in scientific evidence in order to provide for animal health and well-being. In the context of dialogue and the supposed focus on the symposium, the larger question is whether focusing on differing opinions about one research project and one area of study is a good substitute for serious and thoughtful consideration to identify core principles that can guide continuing changes in practice and policy.

Dr. Stacy Lopresti-Goodman came closest to laying out her basic assumptions upfront in her abstract, in which she wrote, “the primate research community should consider whether retirement of all NHP from biomedical research to sanctuary is warranted.” Lopresti-Goodman provided a few slides that cited research studies to back her written statement that “many individuals who experience…adverse conditions exhibit abnormal and/or stereotypic behaviors, and develop symptoms of psychological distress that mirror those of psychopathology in humans,” though it is notable that she did not disclose at any time during the session that she has co-authored articles with PETA employees and others staunchly opposed to animal research.

Zebrafish: Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute

Zebrafish: Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute

Moreover, several in the audience questioned her direct knowledge, experience, and expertise on the topic given her training and publication record in human perception and cognition.

 

Evaluating a claim from HSUS:  What is the evidence on environmental enrichment for nonhuman primates in captive settings?

In the US, all facilities registered or licensed to house nonhuman primates by the federal agency charged with oversight and enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) are required to have a plan for environmental enrichment for those animals. Evidence-based evaluation of practices aimed at meeting the goal of maintaining animals’ health and well-being, in balance with scientific objectives, is the subject of research by many ASP members and those scientific results are on display at most ASP meetings.  The findings inform practices across the range of settings in which nonhuman primates live in captivity.

Conlee’s symposium presentation took a very narrow view, focusing on an analysis that her organization (HSUS) completed of enrichment plans from 38 universities and 18 federal facilities. Those plans were obtained, in part, via use of open records laws. The analysis was aimed at evaluating whether the plans were compliant with federal law. The abstract made a startling claim:  “Plans were scored according to compliance with the minimum Animal Welfare Act standards … The analysis revealed a majority of plans (44) were not adequate.”  To be clear, what that claim suggests is that 44% of the facilities — facilities that are regularly inspected by a federal agency, the USDA– are failing to comply with federal law.

Marmosets. Kathy West. CNPRC.

Titi monkeys. Photo credit: Kathy West

Serious claim – can it be evaluated?  Unfortunately, not well.  The analysis is unpublished and unavailable for public view or critique. Conlee provided no details about the methodology, including critical definitions of coding schemes for “plans [that] were scored according to compliance with the minimum Animal Welfare Act standards” and the subsequent data analysis.

The results Conlee presented were confined to bullet points on one slide rather than actual data with accompanying statistical analysis. Collectively, the “study” did not meet ASP’s (and other societies’) criteria for scientific presentations, but was nonetheless was presented as though it were an empirical study. While that is disappointing enough, the fact that the presentation and abstract made serious claims potentially misrepresenting a large number of dedicated research centers is even more reason to hold presenters to a standard of evidence.

Finally, Conlee presented a slide stating, “USDA requirements for all regulated facilities: no change in 30 years.” However, this statement is misleading. As Justin McNulty, IACUC & IBC Manager at The University of Texas at Austin, pointed out in the discussion following the presentations, “The Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals was just revised in 2011 and was reviewed by some of the people in this room. The recommendations contained in the Guide were based on published data, scientific principles, and expert opinion.” As described in the preface to the 8th Edition of The Guide, “The Guide is intended to assist investigators in fulfilling their obligation to plan and conduct animal experiments in accord with the highest scientific, humane, and ethical principle.”

Lack of evidence for the benefit-risk ratio in laboratory primate research?

LaFleur also gave King’s presentation in her absence. In her written abstract, King wrote, “I will discuss case studies that are lab-based and involve maternal-deprivation and other invasive experiments on cercopithecines; peer-reviewed scientific material from both the cercopithecine and also the comparative chimpanzee literature will provide context for discussing the benefit-harm ratio of such research on monkeys.” However, this presentation also lacked evidence-based claims and relied on references from the news media, as in one slide that touted the primate facilities that closed, or are in the process of phasing out, in 2015. In giving the presentation, LaFleur incorrectly stated that, with respect to the phasing out of the NICHD’s primate research, “those 300 monkeys [were] from the maternal deprivation work.”  This is false: only a small percentage of the colony at this facility each year has undergone nursery-rearing. Furthermore, as noted above, the actual process in place for evaluating balance of potential benefit and scientific objectives with animal welfare was not well addressed by the panelists.

Summary

Collectively, the session left much to be desired for those seeking data-driven suggestions for improving the captive care of non-human primates. As Dr. Karen Hambright, Professor of Psychology at the College of Coastal Georgia and long-time ASP member, stated during the discussion period, “As an educator who has worked with and is familiar with the conditions of animals in both zoos and labs, it my job to teach people to think critically and to base their views on evidence and not on emotional responses to polarizing rhetoric.”

King and LaFleur’s symposium abstract ended with the question, “How specifically can productive discussion about ethics be furthered among primatologists who work primarily on lab science and primatologists who work primarily on animal welfare, always acknowledging that these two groups may overlap?” A good start would be to enact practices that are foundational to any honest dialogue: namely, spelling out basic positions upfront and disclosing any potential conflicts of interest. Productive discussion could then ensue with evidence-based comments and suggestions.

Amanda Dettmer

Amanda M. Dettmer, PhD, is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development. Her writing does not reflect the opinions of the NICHD or the NIH.

 

Supporting science: NIH answers PETA

The National Institutes of Health released a statement Monday in support of a well-respected and long-standing primate research program within the NIH intramural program that has been the subject of an ongoing PETA campaign. The focus of the research program, under the direction of Dr. Stephen J. Suomi, is on:

“examining the behavioral and biological development of non-human primates. Primary objectives are to understand how genetic and environmental factors interact to affect cognitive development, as well as develop interventions that can alter developmental trajectories of individuals whose specific genetic and experiential background put them at risk for adverse developmental outcomes. These studies cannot be carried out in humans and require the use of animal studies to carefully separate experience, genetic, and environmental factors. Ultimately, these findings assist researchers in identifying humans most likely to suffer negative effects in at-risk situations and develop behavioral and drug therapies to improve negative outcomes early in life.”

The NIH statement notes the high value of the research program, as assessed by an external board of scientific experts who concluded that the program:

  “has achieved world class, enduring contributions to our understanding of the developmental, genetic, and environmental origins of risk and vulnerability in early life,” and “could be a truly remarkable point of departure for a unified theory describing the biological embedding of early social conditions and their developmental consequences.”

Cover PNAS monkey pic 2For more about the research, the laboratory, and the animals, see:

NIH’s Response to PETA

NIH’s response to the PETA campaign was thoughtful, thorough, and transparent. The response includes a positive assessment of the value of the research in terms of human health relevance and advances in scientific understanding. It addresses why the research in conducted in monkeys and why it is not possible to use alternative methods, or to conduct the work in humans.

The response also includes a serious, fact-informed consideration of the animals’ welfare. Detailed responses from two of NIH’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees that conducted an extensive evaluation of the research address each element of the concerns raised by PETA and the scientists supporting them (including, Professors John Gluck, Psychology, University of New Mexico; Agustin Fuentes Anthropology, Notre Dame; and Barbara King, Anthropology, William and Mary College; Lawrence Hansen, Pathology, UC-San Diego).

Furthermore, in response to PETA’s complaint, the NIH undertook an exhaustive review via its Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare (OLAW). Comprehensive responses to each of the concerns raised by PETA are contained in the reports posted on the NIH website. For those who seek more information, facts, and substantive background to inform their consideration of the conduct of the research and the animals’ welfare, we encourage you to read the NICHD IACUC response posted here: NICHD 12.17.15 ACUC_Memo_2_121914

nih statement 01.28.15

Taken together, NIH’s responses provide a strong demonstration of a high level of care and consideration of animal welfare, as well as the risk and benefit balances that are inherent in the conduct of research with both human and nonhuman animals. The response clearly vindicates Dr. Suomi and provides welcome public acknowledgement by the NIH of the importance of his work.

As welcome as the NIH responses are, they are not, however, responses that will satisfy PETA’s absolutist goal of ending all use of nonhuman animals for any purpose, including animal research, but also food, companionship, entertainment, or other uses.

PETA’s complaint about this and other research included language about animal welfare and about alternatives to animal research in order to achieve the same scientific goals. In reality, however, PETA’s position—like that of all absolutists—is not centrally concerned with either viable alternatives to animal studies or with animal welfare. Rather, the position is that no human use of other animals—any animals, whether photogenic and appealing in popular campaigns, or not—is justified, regardless of the outcome or harms. (See here and here for additional discussion.)

As a result, it would seem that no response NIH could give to PETA would be satisfactory unless it was to end all animal research altogether. Or, in the case of a particular project or lab, the only response satisfactory to PETA or other absolutists would be to end that project, or close that lab. At some level then the question to ask may be about the cost: benefit of such responses.

By contrast to the absolute viewpoint, aspects of ethical consideration of animal research that matter to the majority of the broad public and to the scientific community are evidenced by their instantiation in the laws of a democratic society and  in regulatory and community standards, as well as in individuals’  own assessment. These include concern with significant public health challenges and appreciation for the critical role of basic scientific understanding as the foundation for a broad range of advances that benefit the public, other animals, and the environment. They also include acknowledgement of accomplishments and breakthroughs for human and nonhuman health that are accomplished via animal research. At the same time, they include selection of alternatives where possible, attention to animal’s care and welfare, continuing refinements of procedures in accord with evidence, risk and benefit justification, external oversight, and expert scientific evaluation.

In the case of the current NIH campaign and other campaigns against specific animal research there is a well-known pattern. A group like PETA focuses on a research project—usually one involving  animals such as cats, dogs, or primates that will capture broad public interest. The group then uses the highly responsive system of public institutions and government agencies to obtain information, call for investigation, and launch media campaigns to elicit public concern (and donations). The campaigns are typically based in some form of oversimplification and misrepresentation of the research, treatment of animals, availability of alternatives, or value of the science. In the face of public inquiry or media attention, public research institutions under attack typically offer a response focused on the scientific question, accomplishments, absence of non-animal alternatives, and on the animals’ welfare and oversight.

The problem with that pattern is that it ignores the fact that PETA and others’ campaigns are, in many ways, a reflection of a conflict between fundamentally different philosophical viewpoints. These differences cannot be resolved simply by ensuring scientific advances, careful risk and benefit assessment and balance, or high standards for laboratory animal welfare. All the care, training, accreditation, and external oversight in the world will not address the concerns of individuals or groups who are absolutely opposed to the use of animals in research and who believe that no matter the benefit, use of animals in research cannot be justified. Nor will such approaches address those who believe — wrongly, in most cases — that there are existing alternatives to the use of animals in research. Furthermore, each additional layer of oversight and regulation introduced in an attempt to appease those who cannot be appeased may well add substantial administrative hurdles and costs to the scientific effort without achieving meaningful improvements for animal welfare.

From that perspective, and in light of yet another PETA campaign that has resulted in a significant and extensive response from public agencies, the question becomes whether – and what – might be a better path forward. At present, the same path does not look like one that is productive to improving scientific research. Rather, the prediction would be that PETA and other groups will continue to use the transparency and responsiveness of public research institutions to lend steam to popular opinion campaigns that then target individual scientists, laboratories, and institutions. In turn, a great deal of time and energy will go into investigations, responses, and reports that are likely to yield little in terms of animal welfare, little public benefit, little progress to ending animal research, yet potentially high harm to science. At the very least these responses consume resources that would otherwise be devoted to scientific research or practical enforcement of regulations to protect animal welfare.

As we welcome the NIH’s support for Dr. Suomi we must also ask ourselves a question:  How many more cases like this will there be before the leaders of the scientific community take action to prevent the regulatory system from becoming primarily a tool of the animal rights propaganda machine?

Speaking of Research