The rapidly growing controversy over Oklahoma State University’s President Burns Hargis decision to cancel a research project has attracted national attention for a number of reasons. The November 30th Daily Oklahoman report on Hargis’ decision has ignited discussion and calls for both reversal of the decision and accountability in addressing the many questions that have been raised about decision-making at OSU. Science bloggers—including ERV, Drug Monkey, and Scicurious at Neurotopia— and commentary by their readers highlight the range and type of concern. Speaking of Research provided analysis that places the single research project into the broader context of OSU’s efforts to grow its research program over the past several years. Science magazine’s Greg Miller reported on the story in Science Insider. On December 2nd, the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, the largest coalition of biomedical research associations in the United States, representing 22 scientific societies and more than 90,000 members, released a statement:
The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) finds the reports of the cancellation of an anthrax study involving nonhuman primates at Oklahoma State University (OSU) to be troubling. ‘We are concerned that this undercuts the role of the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC), and blocks the use of appropriate animal models in crucial biodefense research,’ said FASEB President, Mark O. Lively, Ph.D.
Animal activists groups have also joined in. Hargis has been praised for his action by Madeleine Pickens, wife of wealthy donor T. Boone Pickens, on her website. Re-posting a story from DVM Magazine, Pickens places her commendation in the article’s title, adding to it “Kudos for a Great Decision!” and underscores the statement within:
a ‘generous benefactor’ to OSU and her ties to the Humane Society of the United States may have played a role in the termination of the project.
Speaking of Research encourages interest and public dialogue about the role of responsible use of animals in research. We also call for attention to the major issues raised by this situation, which are: Who should be empowered to interfere with funded research, and by what process should this occur?
Disagreement about the use of animals in research, about specific procedures, allocation of resources, and national funding priorities are all issues that merit national, public dialogue with an engaged citizenry. These issues should not, however, be settled by the actions of a single individual who seeks to overturn the decisions and interfere with the processes of the many that are involved in distribution of federal and state monies, scientific review, and institutional oversight of research.
On Friday, an opinion piece by Hargis, formerly a businessman, appeared in the local newspaper and appeared to have the goal of reassuring Oklahomans and others that his decision was in the best interest of his university. The piece is titled “OSU’s best interests at center of decision.” Others have provided analysis of potential problems with his statement and have called for him to address questions that still remain unanswered. Speaking of Research agrees that there are many questions that Hargis has dodged in his statement and we will return to more detailed analysis of those in a subsequent post if they remain unresolved.
Of immediate concern however, is the fact that Hargis appears to feel confident that he is not only competent to make decisions about scientific research, but is also correct to do so based upon consideration of narrow interests. We disagree. Hargis is interfering with research that is part of a much larger family of work that addresses essential questions with relevance to human health. The research at the center of this controversy is a line of work undertaken because it reflects research priorities identified not only by the scientific community, but by state and federal agencies.
The line of research that Hargis is interfering with is aimed at evaluation and development better vaccines to protect our troops and our citizens against bioterrorist agents. Although Hargis is attempting to focus attention on a single project, the implications of his decision-making about this project are much broader. Allowed to stand, the consequences of this decision will go well beyond the local community and have the potential to influence the course of bioterrorism research.
It is possible that Hargis does not understand the process by which decisions are made about dedicating resources and funds for research by federal and state agencies. It is also possible that he does not understand the process that moves science and health research forward. Scientific progress and advancements in medicine most often depends upon interconnection between research projects, collaboration between scientists at different institutions, and sharing of resources and facilities. The project at OSU appears to exemplify this, with collaboration and sharing of resources and facilities between scientists at OSU and other institutions. Rather than recognize this strength, Hargis has leveraged it to explain his action, saying: “The financial impact to OSU would have been minor and OSU’s role would have been limited…”
It is hard to believe that Oklahoma’s citizens and elected officials would support Hargis’ decision to act according to such narrow interests. Although Hargis is charged only with leading OSU, it would seem that he should also be held responsible for serious consideration of how his actions affect the broader public, including the state and federal interests that underlie funding for OSU’s facilities.
Clarification and explanation of many aspects of the OSU situation remain to be provided by OSU’s administration. We hope that this clarification is forthcoming and that Hargis will make himself available for an open public discussion of the situation rather than issuing statements or op-ed pieces with scant information. Thus far, to our knowledge, Hargis has failed to hold an open press conference, nor have state officials or regents addressed the issue publicly.
Of the many questions that remain to be addressed, one is whether Hargis has used his office to subvert public processes in an attempt to support the agenda of animal activists. In his op-ed, Hargis appears to deny animal activist influence in his decision:
It has been suggested that this decision was reached arbitrarily and it was influenced by animal rights activists as well as a donor. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The appearance of the congratulatory post on activist Madeleine Picken’s website, along with a previous controversy involving OSU and Pickens, conveys, however, the impression that Hargis’ attention is to wealthy donors rather than to national priorities for public health research. Applauding Hargis’ action is, in many ways, applauding a course of action that is in opposition to democratic process.
If Hargis wants to make his office the arena for both dialogue and debate about animal research, Speaking of Research will applaud his desire to engage in an essential discussion. What should be understood by Hargis and others is that interfering in a line of research already endorsed at federal, state, and local levels is an action that is deeply troubling and will receive widespread attention until it is reversed. Hargis is presumably accountable to the state legislature and citizens of Oklahoma. If he is unwilling to provide clarification about this situation in a manner that addresses the many questions raised, we ask that others step in to do so. Contact information for state officials is below.
Speaking of Research
The views expressed on this blog post are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of my employer, Wake Forest University Health Sciences.