Tag Archives: letter

Scientific community unites in defence of primate research

The Backstory

It’s been a busy few weeks for those who wish to explain the role of primates in research. Last week the NIH held a workshop on “Ensuring the Continued Responsible Oversight of Research with Non-Human Primates” (watch it back here). The Congressionally mandated workshop resulted from report language that was associated with a PETA campaign. PETA hoped the workshop would question whether primates should be used in research at all. Instead PETA were disappointed when many experts came together to talk about how primates remained important to medical and scientific research. Days before the event, PETA activist, Professor John Gluck, wrote to the New York Times to criticise the use of primates in research. Speaking of Research posted a response – “The ethics and value of responsible animal research” – that was signed by over 100 scientists. Other organisations have subsequently written back to the newspaper with letters published this week.

Over in the UK, a group of 21 academics (primarily anthropologists) including Sir David Attenborough (notable broadcaster and naturalist) wrote to the online-only Independent newspaper to call for an end to certain neuroscience experiments involving primates. This provoked a backlash from the research community, who accused him of being “seduced by pseudoscience“. They may have had a point – Attenborough’s letter,  organised by Cruelty Free International, backed itself up with a recent paper “Non-human primates in neuroscience research: The case against its scientific necessity” (authored by two staff at Cruelty Free International). The UK Expert Group for Non-Human Primate Neuroscience Research told The Independent:

“We are disappointed to see that David Attenborough and a number of scientists have been misled by the pseudoscience in the paper by CFI, an organisation intent on ending research with all animals, not just primates. “

The paper (by Bailey & Taylor, 2016) itself suggests that several medical advances – such as Deep Brain Stimulation – did not rely on animal studies. This would not seem to match what can be seen in the academic literature, indeed Alim Benabid, who won a Lasker Award for his role in developing the technique noted the important role of animal models, including primates.

Researchers Unite!

There are many other events which have played into a frustration by primate researchers, but the response was huge. Understanding Animal Research coordinated a letter on the role of primates in research. Within a few days hundreds of primate researchers and neuroscientists had signed up. Notable signatories included: Sir John Gurdon, who won the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, and the 2009 Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award, for their work in reprogramming mature cells into early stem cells; Sir John E Walker, who won the 1997 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for elucidating the mechanisms behind the synthesis of ATP; Professor Mahlon DeLong and Alim Benabid, who jointly won the 2014 Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award for their research developing Deep Brain Stimulation as a surgical treatment for Parkinson’s (the same discovery that the Bailey & Taylor, 2016, paper suggested did not require  primates); and Professor Miguel Nicolelis, whose Walk Again project allowed a young paraplegic in an exo-skeleton to kick a football.

neuroscience-starsOver twenty organisations, including Speaking of Research, the Society for Neuroscience (SFN), and the American Psychological Association (APA) signed their support ( a full list of signatories can be found here). The letter was published by the UK newspaper, The Guardian, on 13th September (and the following day in print), along with an accompanying article.

Furthermore, around 400 researchers also signed on to the letter:

Nonhuman primates have long played a key role in life-changing medical advances. A recent white paper by nine scientific societies in the US produced a list of fifty medical advances from the last fifty years made possible through studies on nonhuman primates. These included: treatments for leprosy, HIV and Parkinson’s; the MMR and hepatitis B vaccines; and earlier diagnosis and better treatment for polycystic ovary syndrome and breast cancer.

The biological similarities between humans and other primates means that they are sometimes the only effective model for complex neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s. More than ten million people suffer from Parkinson’s worldwide, and a recent study estimated that one in three people born in 2015 will develop dementia in their lifetime. Primate research offers treatments, and hope for future treatments, to patients and their families. Already over two hundred thousand Parkinson’s patients have had their life dramatically improved thanks to Deep Brain Stimulation surgery, which reduces the tremors of sufferers. This treatment was developed from research carried out in a few hundred monkeys in the 1980-90s.

Given that primates are intelligent and sensitive animals, such research requires a higher level of ethical justification. The scientific community continues to work together to minimise the suffering of primates wherever possible. We welcome the worldwide effort to Replace, Refine and Reduce the use of primates in research.

We, the undersigned, believe that if we are to effectively combat the scourge of neurodegenerative and other crippling diseases, we will require the careful and considered use of nonhuman primates. Stringent regulations across the developed world exist to ensure that primates are only used where there is no other available model – be that the use of a mouse or a non-animal alternative and to protect the wellbeing of those animals still required. The use of primates is not undertaken lightly, however, while not all primate research results in a new treatment, it nonetheless plays a role in developing both the basic and applied knowledge that is crucial for medical advances.

A segment of the letter printed in the Guardian

A segment of the letter printed in the Guardian

Get involved – show your support!

While, the letter itself is published. Understanding Animal Research are continuing the accept signatories from neuroscientists and primate researchers (signatories must be from academia and must hold a PhD, MD or equivalent). These are being updated on a regular basis on their website.

So if you wish to sign – click here: https://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/PrimateLetter

Already they are up to over 550 signatories – just one week after they started collecting (considerably more than the 21 signatories that Cruelty Free International managed in their letter, and with a lot more expertise in the area of Neuroscience).

Speaking of Research

Benefits of Animal Research, Right Down to the Letter

It’s always exciting, in this day and age, to get a letter that isn’t spam. Even more exciting when the letter is from another continent. And even more when it’s a letter as supportive and insightful as this one (full text below).

Dear Tom Holder:

I am a freshman studying at Orange County High School of the Arts. In my literature class, I recently gave a political speech addressing the benefits of animal research. I understand that your organization strongly encourages animal research. Allow me to thank you for actively supporting the use of animals in biomedical research by inspiring students and scientists to speak out in favor of animal research.

With animal testing, the world’s life expectancy is remarkably high. From the eradication of polio and small pox to breast cancer treatments, animal research has proved to be fundamental to the well being of this species. Viruses, diseases, and illnesses should never get in the way of our country’s success. By means of animal research, we have several vaccines and prescriptions available to the country to prevent these. Conventional wisdom states that animal testing implies animal abuse. But in reality, most scientists build up strong attachments to the animals they use in their experiments. Public misconceptions about alternatives to animal testing remain high, In vitro testing, MRI scanning, computer modeling and micro dosing are al vital, but these aspects of medicine simply compliment animal testing. One cannot purely find a replacement to animal research. Animal research should therefore not only be allowed, it must be strongly encouraged.

Animal research is irreplaceable and crucial to medical progress. Thus, thank you for standing up for science by founding several organizations similar to Speaking of Research. Please continue inspiring others and encouraging students, like me, to speak out for the benefits of animal research.


Momachi Pabrai
(reprinted with permission of author)

I congratulate Momachi for standing up among her colleagues to tell them of the benefits of animal research. Her letter shows that she has clearly thought through this controversial issue. Momachi hits upon the key ideas of why animal research is done. Namely:

  1. It is crucial to medical development; and
  2. It is currently irreplaceable

She includes examples such as the polio vaccine and breast cancer treatments (e.g. Herceptin) to back up her arguments. This is an example of how anyone, no matter what their scientific background, can make the case for animal research.

On behalf of Speaking of Research I wish Momachi all the best in the rest of her freshman year.


Tom Holder

Open Letter to Dr. Greek

This is a copy of a letter written to Dr. Greek long ago (July 2003) in response to his request for a written contribution from me.  Everything I say in this letter is the honest truth of what I think now, as I did then, with regard to cognitive neuroscience in the non-human primate.  At the foot of the letter I add a glossary of terms unfamiliar to other readers.

Dear Dr. Greek,

Thank you for your letter of July 8 inviting me to contribute a chapter to your new book on the scientific evaluation of the animal model in science and medicine.  It seems a highly worthwhile and timely project.  Unfortunately, because of my–deserved or undeserved–reputation, to which you kindly refer, I am unable to contribute the chapter that you solicit.  I have a very active research program, a splendid group of graduate and undergraduate students to teach, and an apparently never-ending list of meetings and writing commitments.  In a word, I’m swamped.

However, because I think the issue is legitimate and important, and you are interested in hearing both sides of the controversy, I cannot refrain from addressing it here with a few words, although only sketchily.  Of course, I presume you see me, correctly, on the side of those who believe that the animal model is extremely useful, at least for some aspects of neuroscience.  Indeed, I firmly believe that, with regard to the cerebral cortex, there is no adequate substitute for the non-human primate model (no set of algorithms, no computer simulations, no inferences from human imaging or scalp electrophysiology).  The value of the primate model, in what pertains to cognitive functions and the role of the cortex in the human, rests in the homology between the cortex of the non-human primate and that of the human.

That homology is structural as well as functional.  As you probably know, the cytoarchitectonic structures of the two cortices are very similar, almost indistinguishable from each other.  Functionally, the homology is just as striking.  Here I am referring to the physiological mechanisms and principles of operation of the principal cognitive functions (perception, attention, memory, intelligence); not language, of course, which is exclusive patrimony of our species.  Certainly, human cognition is immensely richer than monkey cognition, but the same essential network structure and dynamics can be recognized in the cortex of the two species.  I do not need to explain to you the implications of the similarities in cortical structure and function for the pathogenesis, etiology, diagnosis, and treatment of certain nervous and mental disorders, even though some of those implications may not be direct or immediate (“lifesaving”).

To be sure, we have to be aware of the limits of the homology and of the important and undeniable inter-species differences.   We have to also avoid the simplistic, indeed silly, assumption that homology is reducible to genetic identity.  In the cortex, as in genetics, relationship is what really matters.  Relationship–between cortical cell assemblies or between genes–is what ultimately defines the cognitive structure (percept, memory, etc.) or the phenotype.  In the 21st century, as I see it, both cognitive neuroscience and genetics will finally make the much-needed Copernican shift from the sterile down-spiral of reductionism into molecules to the more holistic view of how biological systems operate  (I recommend to you Hayek’s Sensory Order, U. Chicago, 1952 and my Cortex and Mind, Oxford, 2003, sorry I have no extra copy at hand to give you).  For that crucial shift, the primate cortical network model is going to be pivotal.

For many years, in my laboratory, we have been working on the neuronal foundation of memory and the role of the cortex, especially the prefrontal cortex, in it.  It is difficult research, with its problems and limitations, like any research in complex systems.  It is also quite rewarding and productive.  Again, to a person like you I do not have to explain, because you will readily understand, that we study neural activity at the cellular level because we are interested in cortical systems and networks and in the functional relationships between neurons and between cortical areas.  Much of the knowledge we acquire in the monkey is undoubtedly transferable to the human.  Some of it is not.  On the whole, our work is not only consistent with, but also supports, the network model of cortical function.  Nowadays it gives me considerable satisfaction to see that model slowly but surely penetrating current thinking in cognitive neuroscience.

However, precisely because of the homology, indeed the unquestionable similarities, between human and monkey in cortex and cognition, we face some special problems.  In your letter you state that you are not interested in ethical or philosophical questions.  Yet, in our field, some of these questions are inextricable from scientific questions.  In the first place, on scientific grounds alone, we cannot tolerate that our monkeys experience stress or pain.  You know how detrimental both stress and pain can be for cognitive functions.  Stress and pain, even minimal, can be serious obstacles to the attainment of our scientific aims, especially when we have to use behavioral tests for cognitive assessment.  We have to avoid them in our monkeys at all costs. This is something that people in the animal rights movement do not seem–or want–to understand, even though I have no trouble understanding some of their ethical concerns.  (In fact, years ago, when we had a miserable regulatory climate, I was gladly one of their best allies.)

Then, of course, there are the very legitimate ethical and philosophical questions of experimenting on animals that are very much like us but lack one of our cognitive functions, namely (no pun intended), language; they cannot tell us what pleases or displeases them, even though they are fully sentient.  Fortunately, of course, they have emotional “language.” (I am sure you know it but, in case you don’t, I highly recommend to you Darwin’s wonderful book on emotional expression in man and animals, reedited by Eckman).  Thus, by vocal, facial and bodily signs, monkeys can indeed tell us how they feel.  (After almost half a century of working with macaques, I think I can proudly add “monkey language” to the list of the other six that I can understand reasonably well!)

So, the challenge in the study of primate cognitive neuroscience is to apply a judicious combination of scientific, ethical, and philosophical precepts.  The ideal balance is difficult to achieve, but the basic principles are simple enough:  (1) Impeccable scientific rationale toward practical and meaningful goals;  (2) Minimum number of animals to attain those goals;  (3) Exquisite care of the animals; and (4) Exhaustive analysis of the data to obtain maximum yield of information and to avoid duplication.

I’ll finish by going back to the scientific aspects, which are those that interest you.  Right now, we are investigating the coupling, in higher cognitive functions, between neural activity–as reflected by neuronal discharge and local field potentials–and hemodynamic change, something that cannot be done in the human.  The results of this exciting research, in my view, may have enormous implications for our understanding of the biophysics of functional imaging methods in the human and the dynamics of cortical networks.

Although I cannot write the article that you graciously invited me to write (it almost seems that this long letter ought to do!), you are naturally welcome to visit my website, where you can find the details of my use of the monkey model in cognitive neuroscience.  That would undoubtedly give you a better perspective of my views on the issue than I have been able to convey in these lines.

I wish you success with your book, which I look forward to reading after it appears in print.  I hope you will, indeed, cover both sides of a very important controversy.

Yours sincerely,
Joaquín M. Fuster, M.D., Ph.D.
Professor, UCLA School of Medicine


Cognitive Neuroscience.  The neuroscience of knowledge and memory, that is, of what we know and remember (more).

Cytoarchitecture. Structural geometry of cells and fibers in the brain.

.  The cause(s) of disease (more).

. Chemical substances inside cells that encode the hereditary characters of the organism (more).

Hemodynamic change
.  Change in blood flow in nerve tissue as a result of its nervous activation.  It is an indirect measure of brain activity currently used in hospitals, clinics, and laboratories.  Extremely useful in cognitive neuroscience to assess the cerebral foundation of higher cognitive functions, such as memory.

.  Equivalence of anatomical and physiological brain features across animal species.

Neural networks
.   Assemblies of interlinked cortical neurons (brain cells) that by their patterns of connectivity encode memories and actions.

Pathogenesis.  The anatomical and physiological foundations of disease.

Phenotype.  The physical manifestation of the developed hereditary traits (more).

Prefrontal cortex
.  The anterior cortex of the frontal lobe, essential for organizing behavior.  It plays a vital role in all the executive functions (working memory, decision-making, planning, etc.) that serve behavior organization (more).

.  The scientific search of ever-smaller physical elements (down to particular chemical molecules) in attempts to understand cause and effect in higher functions (for example, cognitive functions).

Open Letter to Michael Budkie

Michael Budkie

Michael Budkie

On June 1, 2009, animal rights activist, Michael Budkie, submitted a letter of complaint (AR Website) to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), with the charge that scientists are performing duplicative research.  Mr. Budkie’s complaint was based upon his own analysis of the publicly available information about research funded by the National Eye Institute, a division of the National Institutes of Health. Budkie’s complaint, related information, and press releases are posted on the website of Stop Animal Exploitation Now (AR Website)(S.A.E.N.).  We feel that it is essential to point out that his analysis, through omitting critical details, presents a remarkable illustration not only of bias, but also a fundamental misunderstanding of the scientific process. Here, we identify his omissions and mis-representations and request a response to our challenges.

An Open Letter to Michael Budkie, Animal Health Technician, Stop Animal Exploitation Now

re:  Research industry next to meltdown, charges watchdog; urges federal probe after study shows fraud in 26 laboratories, including Harvard, University of California

Dear Mr. Budkie,

You have recently requested that the federal government investigate what you represented as wasteful spending on health-related research. You believe you have identified an enormous problem with duplication of research, based on your perusal of some of the grant applications that the National Institutes of Health have funded over the past five years.

In an effort to understand your position, we have read your recent complaint to the USDA and looked closely at what you offer as supportive documentation.  Here are some of our reflections.

Your spreadsheet shows that scientists engaged in research often use some of the same tools and methods to conduct their work.  You are correct. The conclusion that their efforts duplicate one another, using more animals than is minimally required to advance science, is not.

Information on the approaches used to conduct a research project is found in the “Methods Section” of a grant application or manuscript. Unfortunately, you appear to have missed the pages of text that came before the Methods; in these sections, you find the nature of the problem being addressed by each research proposal. It goes without saying that – with respect to human health – there are lots of problems needing to be addressed, so part of what is discussed in a grant first is which ones are important and why. These sections also delineate what is already known and what isn’t.  All of these points are addressed in grant applications and journal articles. They are found under sections such as Introduction, Specific Aims, Background and Preliminary Data. Together, all of those parts give the context and rationale for why each particular research project is needed and why the specific methods chosen are the best possible means of addressing the identified problem.  According to your letter and spreadsheet it would seem that you have limited yourself to the methods used in the research, which does little to explain its context.

What you claim is that your “analysis” demonstrates that a large number of scientists are doing the same study (in some cases, over and over again for years). Essentially, you figure that if scientists are using the same kind of animals, the same kind of methods and the same kind of equipment, they must all be doing the same experiment.  In turn, you suggest that the government is paying for the same experiment many times. You conclude that this is needless duplication—a waste of animals, time, and money. However, once again, you misunderstand, or misrepresent, that each of these projects is addressing very different problems, each with independent implications for our understanding of human biology. Indeed, to ignore the question and focus on the similarities of methods is kind of like saying that two farmers, both of whom are planting seeds in soil and using the same kind of tractor, are growing the same crop to feed the same family.

If ten scientists all use microscopes in their research and look at cells from the same kind of animal, are they all doing the same research?  Maybe. Or perhaps one is looking at cells from breast tissue to determine whether they are cancerous, while another is looking at cells from brain tissue to determine whether they have abnormalities associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

Or maybe they are both looking at cells from breast tissue to determine whether it is cancerous. One is comparing the cells of an animal exposed to environmental toxins to cells from an animal that has not been exposed. That scientist’s goal is to learn how to make environments safer and reduce the risk of breast cancer.  Meanwhile, the other scientist is evaluating the cells of an animal who received an experimental drug to treat breast cancer. This scientist’s goal is to determine whether a new drug, one that might be effective in treating breast cancer, is effective and safe.

Are these two scientists—both working with the same kind of animal, using some of the same tools and techniques, same type of cells, and studying the same disease—doing duplicative research?  Is it the “same” experiment?  Should we choose to do one and not the other because it would be wasteful to have two studies that might help prevent and treat breast cancer?

You must appreciate that while the scientific method requires replication of findings to assess their reliability, scientists cannot succeed in making breakthroughs that improve human and animal health if they simply duplicate what others have done.  Furthermore, in exercising its responsibility for federal funds, the NIH will not provide support for grants that are not advancing research boundaries. What the concerned reader should know is that each of the grants listed by Budkie is among less than 10% of all applications that underwent rigorous review by a panel of scientists who made a recommendation to professional program officers at the NIH who are responsible for distributing tax-payer money effectively and equitably across scientific projects.

The scientific projects funded by the grants listed in your spreadsheet relate to one another as must all good science, but they certainly do not duplicate one another.  For example, different grants support research on different parts of the visual system and different brain regions—all of which are important to vision.  The diverse grants support research on basic visual processes, interactions of vision with other senses, mechanisms of visual attention, decision making, how movements of the eyes are controlled and how these processes affect vision.  Many grants support basic research on fundamental processes, while others fund work focusing on clinical disorders such as amblyopia and strabismus.

If you add a couple of columns to your table – ones that focus on the problem that the research addresses, you would not only provide a more honest portrayal of the science you criticize, but you would also provide the basis for reasonable discussion.  As it stands, your poorly-formulated complaints, self-referential, hyperbolic media releases and selective presentation of information all start to suggest that it is your industry trying to avoid meltdown, that is being rather too creative with the information you have at your disposal.

Yours Sincerely,

Speaking of Research

Speaking in Nature

One of our own members, David Bienus, a animal care technician who recently wrote about his experiences of animal welfare in labs, has got his letter into the esteemed science journal Nature, a portion of which can be seen below:

nature-bienusIn your Editorial ‘Against vicious activism’ (Nature 457, 636; 2009), you call for scientists and the authorities to stand up for animal research in basic and applied science. However, you may be putting the cart before the horse in recommending that officials and politicians become advocates of animal research in order to encourage individual scientists to do so.

In the United Kingdom, it was the actions of individual scientists — and of members of the public who joined the Pro-Test demonstration in Oxford in February 2006 and signed the Coalition for Medical Progress’s petition — that gave politicians and other public figures the encouragement they needed to come out in support of animal research. The lesson to be learned from the UK experience is that scientists at the universities being targeted by extremists, alongside students and advocacy groups, must be encouraged to stand up and be counted. Only then can they expect others less directly involved to take an unequivocal public stand.

The truth, uncomfortable though it may be, is that — as with many controversial areas of science — those working with animals in research must make a public case to justify their use, and must be willing to show unequivocal support for colleagues who speak up. Do that, and the rest will follow.

David Bienus

David makes many good points including that scientists must stand up and make the case for themselves – but we all need to help them get the confidence to do it. The corresponding editorial piece also brought a nice mention to the UK organization Pro-Test (you can read more about Pro-Test on this site):

Britain again provides a good model in the form of Pro-Test, an activist group for those supporting animal research. Its efforts in Oxford have given a public face to supporters of animal testing.

Well it seems the wait is over, as our previous posts mention that students and scientists at UCLA are to march on April 22nd in support of lifesaving medical research and against those who would see it banned. More information on the UCLA Pro-Test page. On this note, the Respectful Insolence blog is the latest to be spreading news of the UCLA Pro-Test demonstration.



Speaking of Research, speaking in Sweden

On November 26th, 2008, Speaking of Research have been invited to give a couple of presentations in Stockholm, Sweden.

In the morning Tom Holder will be giving a presentation entitled “Stand up for Science” at the Swedish Research Council’s information day about animal research. Later in the afternoon (5 – 7pm) Holder will partake in a seminar on animal research at the Karolinska Institutet. Alongside Holder will be Cecilia Johansson , editor of Djurforsok (In English), andmember fo the Swedish Research Council.

Despite Speaking of Research being a US-based organization, it is good to see it having an impact in the wider world.  On a related note, SR has received emails of support from around the US, but it was nice to see one coming from as far afield as Sri Lanka (pretty much as far as you can get from our base in Virginia):

Having read the story in Science about you, and visited your website many times, I want you to know how welcome the ideas you express against the forces opposed to science are. For so many years scientists have been victims of the backlash not only from animal-rights “activists”, but also from the uninformed opposition to biotechnology and more recently, nanotechnology […]I do wish you all more strength to your collective arms. People working in the sciences (and not just the animal sciences) must be enormously grateful that someone, somewhere, is standing up to speak for them. I wish you best luck.