Tag Archives: University of Wisconsin

70 year old professor retires and closes lab, PETA claims victory

The retirement of a highly respected senior neuroscientist at the center of a sustained recent publicity campaign by an animal rights group generated a victory claim on Friday when PETA realized that their target had retired. The retirement came after a productive and award-winning 40 year research and teaching career. University of Wisconsin-Madison neuroscience Professor Tom Yin’s research led to breakthroughs in understanding how the brain processes and localizes sounds. The highly cited research was continuously funded by the US National Institutes of Health because it contributed fundamentally important new knowledge that is the necessary building block for advances in medicine and science that involves hearing. We have written about Professor Yin’s research previously, for more information see here, here, here.

Yin’s sound localization research was the target of a sustained and multi-dimensional attack by PETA over the past three years. The campaign had provided rich opportunities for stunts, attracted celebrities, generated media attention, and undoubtedly brought in many donors for animal rights groups.

Metro bus displaying PETA ad. Image: Wisconsin State Journal.

Metro bus displaying PETA ad. Image: Wisconsin State Journal.

The scientist’s retirement is unlikely to provide obstacles to PETA’s continued success in using the research for fundraising appeals, as was indicated by the group’s immediate response. Despite the obvious fact that the retirement of a 70 year old scientist is expected, rather than unusual, PETA promptly claimed responsibility and announced that they had secured a victorious end to their campaign.

PETA’s tactic may well serve as a model to other groups because it offers a solid opportunity to claim effectiveness of their campaigns. If so, we might expect to see other scientists seemingly within the realm of retirement age appear as targets of major campaigns that involve bus ads, celebrities, and stunts that misrepresent the research. (Or perhaps they could simply claim all retired scientists did so not as a result of age, or the natural conclusion of long and productive careers, but rather in response to campaigns by those opposed to the research.)

Despite the scientist’s retirement and the lab closing, it seems unlikely that PETA will retire the photos of research animals and misleading claims about Yin’s work that were the center of PETA’s campaign. It is more likely that the campaign will continue to be used by PETA to attract attention and donors, with the promise of more victories in ending research.

PETA also took a page from other animal rights groups that claim credit for the retirement of research animals, despite the fact that it is the scientists and research institutions that find adoptive homes and retire the animals. Like many research institutions, the University of Wisconsin-Madison finds adoptive homes for animals that are no longer in research and whose care and safety can be assured in a home setting. In this case, four of the five cats that were part of Professor Yin’s research were retired into private homes. This is in stark contrast to the PETA policy at its Norfolk, VA shelter of killing on average 2000 dogs and cats per year (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/07/us/peta-finds-itself-on-receiving-end-of-others-anger.html)

The university, like other research facilities, does not use those adoptions as a vehicle for media attention. By contrast, retired research animals are often featured as centerpieces in fundraising campaigns by animal rights groups. We have written about this previously in the context of a controversial campaign by Beagle Freedom, in which the animal rights group appropriates credit for research facilities’ successful adoption programs. In general, the focus of the adoption programs is on successfully placing the animals. Even the NIH and federal government, while providing over $30 million for retirement of research chimpanzees and committed to tens of millions more for their lifetime support, do so without sustained high-profile media campaigns. Similarly there are rarely press releases from the UW-Madison announcing the animal adoptions or the lab closing due to the scientist’s retirement.

PETA seized the opportunity for their own press release and claim of victory after they realized what had happened. How did they find out? Simply by reading the records that the university regularly sends to PETA and other animal rights groups in response to their regular open records requests. PETA was no doubt pleased by their discovery. Not only could they claim victory for the retirement of the 70 year old scientist, they could also continue to claim PETA themselves were responsible for the research animals’ retirement.

The victory claim is PETA’s central rationale for continued used of the images and claims that were at the center of their campaign. There is little doubt that they will not be retired; rather they are likely to be used for a long time to convey the impression of a success. The question is whether those who hear the victory claim might wonder whether there is anything surprising about the retirement of a 70 year old scientist. Others might be curious enough to learn more about the remarkable accomplishments of that scientist over his 40 year career (see here for more information). In light of current campaigns against other scientists, the question will also become whether PETA has highlighted a new path that paves the way for higher likelihood of being able to claim an unearned victory.


Harlow Dead, Bioethicists Outraged

harlow plaque jpeg (2)

The philosophy and bioethics community was rocked and in turmoil Friday when they learned that groundbreaking experimental psychologist Professor Harry Harlow had died over 30 years ago. Harlow’s iconic studies of mother and infant monkeys have endured for decades as the centerpiece of philosophical debate and animal rights campaigns.  With news of his death, philosophers worried that they would now need to turn their attention to new questions, learn about current research, and address persistent, urgent needs in public consideration of scientific research and medical progress. Scientists and advocates for a more serious contemporary public dialogue were relieved and immediately offered their assistance to help others get up to speed on current research.

To close the chapter, psychologists at the University of Wisconsin provided the following 40 year retrospective on Harlow’s work and its long-term impact (see below).

Internet reaction to the scientists’ offering was swift, fierce, and predictable.

“We will never allow Harlow to die,” said one leading philosopher, “The fact is that Harlow did studies that are controversial and we intend to continue making that fact known until science grinds to a halt and scientists admit that we should be in charge of all the laboratories and decisions about experiments. It is clear to us that we need far more talk and far less action. Research is complicated and unpredictable–all that messiness just needs to get cleaned up before research should be undertaken.”

Animal rights activists agreed, saying:

“For many decades Harlow and his monkeys have been our go-to graphics for protest signs, internet sites, and articles. It would simply be outrageously expensive and really hard to replace those now. Furthermore, Harlow’s name recognition and iconic monkey pictures are invaluable, irreplaceable, and stand by themselves. It would be a crime to confuse the picture with propaganda and gobbledygook from extremist eggheads who delusionally believe that science and animal research has changed anything.”

Others decried what they viewed as inappropriate humorous responses to the belated shock at Harlow’s passing.

“It is clear to us that scientists are truly diabolical bastards who think torturing animals is funny. Scientists shouldn’t be allowed to joke. What’s next? Telling people who suffer from disease that they should just exercise and quit eating cheeseburgers?” said a representative from a group fighting for legislation to outlaw food choice and ban healthcare for non-vegans and those with genetic predispositions for various diseases.

A journalist reporting on the controversial discovery of Harlow’s death was overheard grumbling, “But what will new generations of reporters write about? Anyway, the new research is pretty much the same as the old research, minus all the complicated biology, chemistry, and genetic stuff, so it may as well be Harlow himself doing it.”

A fringe group of philosophers derisively called the “Ivory Tower Outcasts” for their work aimed at cross-disciplinary partnerships in public engagement with contemporary ethical issues made a terse statement via a pseudonymous social media site.

“We told you so. Harlow is dead. Move on. New facts, problems require thought+action (ps- trolley software needs upgrade, man at switch quit)”

Harlow himself remained silent. For the most part, his papers, groundbreaking discoveries, and long-lasting impact on understanding people and animals remained undisturbed by the new controversy.

Statement from Psychologists:

Harlow’s career spanned 40+ years and produced breakthroughs in understanding learning, memory, cognition and behavior in monkeys1 (see Figure 1). In a time period where other animals were generally thought of as dumb machines, Harlow’s work demonstrated the opposite — that monkeys, like humans, have complex cognitive abilities and emotional attachments. Harlow and his colleagues developed now classic ways to measure cognition2,3. For example, the Wisconsin General Test Apparatus (WGTA; see Figure 1), in which monkeys uncover food beneath different types of colored toys and objects, allowed scientists to understand how monkeys learn new things, remember, and discriminate between different colors, shapes, quantities, and patterns.

The discoveries of Harlow and his colleagues in the 1930s and forward provided the foundation not only for changes in how people view other animals, but also for understanding how the brain works, how it develops, and –ultimately–how to better care for people and other animals.

Figure 1

Figure 1

In the last decade of his long career, Harlow, his wife Margaret– a developmental psychologist, and their colleagues, again rocked the scientific world with a discovery that fundamentally changed our biological understanding.3 Contrary to prevailing views in the 1950s and before, the Harlows’ studies of infant monkeys definitively demonstrated that mother-infant bonds and physical contact—not just provision of food—are fundamentally important to normal behavioral and biological development. Those studies provided an enduring empirical foundation for decades of subsequent work that shed new light on the interplay between childhood experiences, genes, and biology in shaping vulnerability, resilience, and recovery in lifespan health.

For a brief time at the very end of his career, Harlow performed a small number of studies that have served as the touchstone for philosophers, animal rights groups, and others interested in whether and how animal research should be done. The most controversial of the studies are known by their colloquial name “pit of despair” and were aimed at creating an animal model of depression. In this work, fewer than 20 monkeys were placed in extreme isolation for short periods (average of 6 weeks) following initial infant rearing in a nursery.

At the time, the late 1960s, the presence of brain chemicals had recently been identified as potentially critical players in behavior and mental illnesses like depression and schizophrenia. New understanding and treatment of the diseases was desperately needed to address the suffering of millions of people. Available treatments were crude. They included permanent institutionalization– often in abject conditions, lobotomy (removing part of the brain), malaria, insulin, or electric shock therapies. As some scientists worked to uncover the role of brain chemicals in behavior and mood, others worked to produce drugs that could alter those chemical networks to relieve their negative effects. In both cases, animal models based on similar brain chemistry and biology were needed in order to test whether new treatments were safe and effective. It was within this context that Harlow and his colleagues in psychiatry studied, in small numbers, monkeys who exhibited depressive-like behaviors.

By the 1970s and over the next decades, scientists produced medications that effectively treat diseases like schizophrenia and depression for many people. The therapies are not perfect and do not work for everyone, which is why research continues to identify additional and new treatments. Regardless, there is no question that the suffering of millions of people has been reduced, and continues to be alleviated, as a result of new medications and new understanding of the biological basis of disease.

Infant rhesus monkeys playing in nursery.  Wisconsin National Primate Research Center. @2014 University of Wisconsin Board of Regents

Infant rhesus monkeys playing in nursery. Wisconsin National Primate Research Center. @2014 University of Wisconsin Board of Regents

Looking back while moving forward

Nearly 50 years later, it is difficult to imagine the time before MRI and neuroimaging and before the many effective treatments for depression, schizophrenia and other diseases. It is perhaps even more difficult to imagine a time in which people believed that genes and biology were destiny, that other animals were automatons, or that mothers were only important because they provided food to their children. Casting an eye back to the treatment of monkeys, children, and vulnerable human populations in medical and scientific research 50 years ago, or even 30 years ago, is difficult as well. Standards for ethical consideration, protections for human and animal participants in research, and the perspectives of scientists, philosophers, and the public have all continued to change as knowledge grows. Yet, what has not changed is an enduring tension between the public’s desire for progress in understanding the world and in reducing disease and the very fact that the science required to make that progress involves difficult choices.

There are no guarantees that a specific scientific research project will succeed in producing the discoveries it seeks. Nor is there a way to know in advance how far-ranging the effect of those discoveries may be, or how they may serve as the necessary foundation for work far distant. In the case of Harlow’s work, the discoveries cast a bright light on a path that continues to advance new understanding of how the brain, genes, and experiences affect people’s health and well-being.

Mother and infant swing final

Mother and juvenile rhesus macaque at the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center. @2014 University of Wisconsin Board of Regents








In the 30 years since Harlow’s death, new technologies and new discoveries—including brain imaging (MRI, PET), knowledge about epigenetics (how genes are turned on and off), and pharmacotherapies—have been made, refined, and put into use in contemporary science. As a result, scientists today can answer questions that Harlow could not. They continue to do so not because the world has remained unchanged, or because they lack ethics and compassion, but because they see the urgent need posed by suffering and the possibility of addressing global health problems via scientific research.

Harlow’s legacy is a complicated one, but one worth considering beyond a simple single image because it is a legacy of knowledge that illustrates exactly how science continues to move forward from understanding built in the past. An accurate view of how science works, what it has achieved, what can and cannot be done, are all at the heart of a serious consideration of the consequences of choices about what scientific research should be done and how. Harlow and his studies may well be a touchstone to start and continue that dialogue. But it should then be one that also includes the full range of the work, its context and complexity, rather than just the easy cartoon evoked to draw the crowd and then loom with no new words.

Allyson J. Bennett, PhD

The author is a faculty member at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  The views and ideas expressed here are her own and do not necessarily represent those of her employer.

Suomi SJ & Leroy, HA (1982) In Memoriam: Harry F. Harlow (1905-1982). American Journal of Primatology 2:319-342. (Note: contains a complete bibliography of Harlow’s published work.)

2Harlow HF & Bromer J (1938). A test-apparatus for monkeys. Psychological Record 2:434-436.

3Harlow HF (1949). The formation of learning sets. Psychological Review 56:51-65

4Harlow HF (1958). The nature of love. American Psychologist 13:673-685.

Conversation Starter? PETA’s Bus Ads on University of Wisconsin Hearing Research

As predicted, PETA’s ongoing campaign against scientific research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison continues, escalating this week with a striking advertisement on 100 Metro buses. The ad calls for an end to UW research aimed at better understanding how the brain processes sound. A central question is how sound arriving at both ears is combined to allow us to determine the direction of its source with respect to our body. Sound localization ability allows us, for example, to quickly react to an approaching car that we might not have seen. In turn, this kind of basic understanding has provided the knowledge necessary to help people with hearing disorders and to guide the way for cochlear implants. It is the work of a highly respected scientist, Professor Tom Yin, whose discoveries and research have been funded by the National Institutes of Health for decades. His research is publicly funded because the scientific leadership of our country determined that the work is important to serve the public’s interest in advancing scientific understanding and public health. Furthermore, and contrary to PETA’s claims, the  cats are healthy and treated humanely, in accord with federal regulation, as demonstrated by the public reporting of thorough oversight by multiple federal agencies.

Metro bus displaying PETA ad. Image: Wisconsin State Journal.

Metro bus displaying PETA ad. Image: Wisconsin State Journal.

The ads that PETA is running on the buses don’t mention that.  What they do instead is show a picture of a cat, a participant in the research and the phrase “I am not lab equipment. End UW cat experiments.”

The picture is one PETA obtained from an open records request. Video of the research, many pictures, and interviews of the scientists whose research is targeted can be found here. The PeTA ads also don’t mention that both the US Department of Agriculture and the NIH’s Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare investigated PeTA’s complaints and cleared Prof. Yin and UW of any wrongdoing.

We have written previously (here, here, here) in detail about PETA’s sustained efforts to use the federal regulatory system to end the UW’s sound localization research. We’ve also written about their other approaches to generate public and media attention – ranging from celebrity protests at the UW Board of Regents meeting to Bill Maher robocalls to an MMA fighting game where players are encouraged in violence (and sending emails to NIH opposing UW’s research).

Through all of this, PETA has made their position quite clear. Their goal is to end animal research regardless of the consequences for human and animal health, regardless of public interests.

While PETA’s campaigns are marketed as concern about animal welfare, even a superficial analysis quickly shows that it is not their central mission. After all, this is the same group with an abysmal record of killing the cats and dogs in their care.  Furthermore, it seems unlikely that PETA’s investment in various campaigns is proportional to the number of animals involved in different uses. Only a tiny fraction of animals are used in research, in contrast to the vast majority in food, clothing, entertainment, service, and companionship. Yet animal research remains a major investment for PETA campaigns.

What PETA is aiming for when it targets animal research, particularly when it invests so much effort and so many resources to shut down a program involving only a dozen animals is political and obvious. They have selected a target that they believe will capture public emotion and sentiment in a way that serves a broader political goal that otherwise would be difficult to raise public attention and support.

In all of these campaigns, PETA is banking on a couple of expectations. First, that the public will not take the time to learn more about the research. Second, that the scientific, medical, advocacy, and patient groups will decline to engage or counter PETA’s outrageous claims. If, and when, those expectations are no longer met, PETA will lose its power to detract from a serious, civil and public consideration of science, medicine, and animal research.

For that reason, we believe that it is a critical responsibility of our community to continue to provide clear, factual, and responsive engagement to the public—regardless of how silly or wrong PETA’s tactics appear.

In the case of the Madison Metro bus ad campaign, we encourage the public and journalists who are interested in learning about the science– why it is conducted, the discoveries of the scientific team, the clinical applications, and the treatment of the animals—to take the time to learn more. The scientist and the University of Wisconsin have written extensively about the work. They have placed videos, photographs, interviews, papers, and point-by-point responses to PETA’s allegations in public view (more here). In fact, the scientist targeted by PETA for several years has provided a lab tour and interview to a local journalist.

Representatives of the university administration and animal research program have also consistently engaged with the media in a way that goes far beyond boilerplate responses and the university has hosted public discussions that have included contributions from both scientists and animal rights activists. At the time when PETA first made their allegations 65 of Prof. Yin’s colleagues even backed an Op-Ed piece written for the local newspaper. In other words – and no surprise –there is more to the story than a bus shrink-wrapped with a PETA billboard.  UW-Madison has made that clear time and again, with consistent and sustained effort to provide the public with clear, factual information and to engage when questions are asked.  More than that though, they also have a strong track record and commitment to science education and outreach in a great many venues.

While it is tempting to dismiss PETA’s tactics, it is worth public consideration that there is a sure long-term harm of acting on PETA’s commands without understanding the consequences to public interests, public health and the science that serves all of us. The scientific, academic, advocacy, patient, and other communities, on the other hand, know the value of the work that Prof. Yin and his colleagues are doing and can view this latest campaign as yet another time to speak up for the research.

To learn more about the role of animal research in advancing human and veterinary medicine, and the threat posed to this progress by the animal rights lobby, follow us on Facebook or Twitter.

Closing your eyes may open your heart

A statement of fact can be falsified by presenting a single counterexample.  For example, the claim that “Pigs don’t fly” can be proven false by just finding one that does. Similarly, the claim that “we owe the same moral consideration to all sentient living beings” can be falsified by considering scenarios where acting on such moral principle would lead us to conclusions we find utterly unacceptable.

In my recent visit to the University of Wisconsin at Madison we discussed the simple scenario of choosing among a mouse and a human being in a burning house. I explained that the moral principle above calls for us to either flip a coin to make an unbiased decision or let both individuals die.  And yet, nearly all people in the audience would save the human being.  Why? The reason is that we recognize that the same things are not at stake.  In the words of the animal rights philosopher Tom Regan:

“[…] the harm that death is, is a function if the opportunities for satisfaction it forecloses, and no reasonable person would deny that the death of any […] human would be a greater prima facie loss, and thus a greater prima facie harm, that would be true in the case [of] a dog.”

Indeed, it is very difficult to find a reasonable human being that would insist on flipping a coin (yes, you may still run into one or two unreasonable animal rights extremists).  However, the fact that the conclusion is against the moral intuition of most of people suggests we ought to reject the premise as stated above and, with it, moral theories that rely on it.

It is very important to point out that rejecting the premise does not imply at all human interests trump non-human interests all the time.  This is wrong and not something I believe. As an example, I agree that the interests of animals must count when we plan a new urban development.  Indeed, we provide for discussion of environmental impact studies within our communities ahead of its approval.  And there are cases where we decide, with proper justification, that the interests of the animals living in the area trump those of human interests in development.

It is common for an animal rights activists to respond to the burning house scenario by insisting they may be justified in saving the family dog over a despicable human being, such as Hitler.

Once again, this reply is based on the mistaken idea that that rejecting the premise means that human interests should always trump animal interests.  This is not so.  Rejecting the premise means that not all living beings are due the same moral consideration. As a matter of fact, the very notion that we may find it justifiable to save the family dog over Hitler is just one more counterexample to the same premise. If anything, the activists are making my point exactly.

Those who oppose the use of animals in medical research also appear to have difficulty looking at the faces of patients that our work has saved and continues to save every day.  The reason is that these are the patients that would have been harmed if the research of the past had been stopped.  I presented a brief a video of one such breast cancer patient.  You can watch it again below. Two typical responses to seeing the patients are “but you are appealing to emotion!” and “but you don’t work on cancer!”

Indeed, it is true that facing the patients can evoke difficult emotions.  Human emotional suffering is… well, emotional.  It is also suffering.  When a mother with cancer ponders about the consequences of dying for her husband and children she suffers beyond the physical pain of the disease.  And if suffering is morally relevant (as the philosophers argue) then such suffering must count as well.

As to the charge that I don’t do cancer research.  It is true, I don’t.  But why are the activists bringing this up now? Do they all of a sudden approve of cancer research? Do the approve of AIDS research?  Do the approve of Parkinson’s?  Alzheimer’s? Or do they object to my research alone?  The latter would indeed be huge step forward.  Of course, this is not what they mean. Lacking substantive arguments to respond, they merely shift the goalposts to a different topic, such asking about the use of animals for food or my own research.

Very well… so what about my own research?  Like many of my colleagues supported by the National Eye Institute we work on trying to understand how the visual system works to alleviate and/or cure central disorders of vision. I could go on to explain the details but, before one even has the chance to do so, the animal rights activists retort — “but blindness is not a life-threatening disease!”

At this point your jaw may drop as the comment makes it clear that they have not paused for even for one second to consider the effects that blindness or low vision can have on our quality of life. This is curious for a movement that claims to be based on compassion. Failing to consider the consequences of a disease for a patient is nothing but compassionate. It is truly cruel.

I can offer a simple challenge to all those activists out there who believe that the use of animals in research to study vision disorders is unjustified.  Blindfold yourself for just one month and go about your daily activities. Did you life change in any way?  What about the life of your family members that may need to devote time to helping you?  What happened to your independence?

Only after you have gone through the trouble of truly considering the cost of the vision loss, for the patients and their families, I will welcome you back to the comments section below so you can share with all of us your experience.

I can only hope that that having your eyes closed for a month may open your heart… even if just a bit.

Go ahead now…  close your eyes.

PeTA: When everything else fails, bring out a celebrity

Opponents of the use of animals in medical research have failed to make a compelling scientific and moral argument against the work. Having repeated the same arguments for more than a century, and recognizing they are unlikely to succeed in the future, their strategies have shifted towards the simple goal of interfering and obstructing animal research in any way possible.

A common tactic is to bring serious allegations against a scientist and University to the agencies responsible for regulating and monitoring the work, such as USDA and NIH. In this line of work, PeTA has been campaigning intensively against the use of cats in experiments aimed at developing the next generation of cochlear implants at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Cochlear implant

Studies on cats have been crucial to the development of the next generation of cochlear implants

The organization filed multiple complaints against the university claiming that the work had violated the animal welfare act.  Three different federal inspections were launched by the NIH, USDA and OLAW at great expense to the taxpayers and to the University.

The bottom line: PeTA’s allegations were baseless.

So what can you expect PeTA to do?

First, they will deny the outcome of the investigators. Indeed, PeTA’s Justin Goodman, their “director of laboratory investigations”, said in an interview he disagreed with the report’s conclusions, and added “we’re disappointed that the NIH downplayed major animal welfare violations.”

Mr. Goodman should read the report once again — there were no major animal welfare violations found. Period. He is simply disappointed to have been proven wrong. Of course, PeTA probably knew this to be the case even before submitting the complaints. The goal was simply to harass the scientists, interrupt the work and get some free press coverage.

Second, and before anyone can take notice, PeTA will try to distract any media coverage away from the factual findings of the investigations by concocting a celebrity stunt. In this case, it was the turn of comedian Bill Maher, who recorded a voice message against the research which was delivered by robocall to every phone with an  area code surrounding the University.

“It strikes me that it’s not the cats who need their heads examined, because being mean to animals isn’t just stupid—it’s wrong, especially when there are better options that are actually relevant to humans, as there are in this case,” he says in the message.

If there are noninvasive methods that would allow scientists to measure and understand how sounds from the two hears are combined by the brain at timescales of microseconds to estimate their direction of arrival we are ready to be enlightened. The most likely scenario, unfortunately, is that he just does not know what he is talking about.  What is truly mean and stupid is to scientists are using animals when other options are available.

I know, my opinions are hardly news.  The case for Bill Maher’s ignorance on scientific topics ranging from germ theory to vaccinations has been made multiple times and there is no need to repeat them here.  (You are welcome to read here, here, here, here, here, here, …. well, I hope you get the idea.)

It strikes me that if there is anyone who needs his head examined is the one who denies scientific facts, such as the protection offered by vaccines and medications, despite ample evidence to the contrary.

It strikes me as stupid that any reasonable member of the public would listen to the opinion of a comedian on important health issues, rather than listening to their physicians, the Surgeon General, the Centers for Disease Control, or the medical leadership of our country.

It strikes me as dangerous and irresponsible for a joker to offer public health advice against vaccinations when we know exactly what would happen if we followed his recommendations. It is difficult to say but, I would venture to guess that Maher’s advice to his followers may have already killed more humans than the number of cats used in the experiments he opposes.

It strikes me as hypocritical that Bill Maher objects so vociferously to the use of a dozen cats in a multi-year research program to advance medical devices in important hearing research that complies with existing laws and regulations, when PeTA euthanizes thousands of pets in any one year. Do you want to take a closer look? Here are some pictures allegedly of PeTA’s operations.

Finally, It strikes me as nothing short of obscene that any public figure would support an organization like PeTA that encourages its followers to fantasize about the possibility of physically harming scientists and anyone else who do not agree with their philosophy.

It strikes me as if Bill Maher is nothing more than a really bad joke.

And so is PeTA.

Animal welfare inspectors clear UW-Madison cat research of PETA allegations, important hearing research continues

A second federal agency charged with oversight of animal research has completed a thorough investigation of an animal rights group’s complaints about sound localization research with cats at the University of Wisconsin. Summary of the result:  “there was no direct noncompliance with the PHS Policy or serious deviation from the provisions of the Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals.”

We have written previously (here, here, here) about reviews conducted by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). This time the report is from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare (OLAW).  Once again, the complaint by PETA is based on hundreds of pages of records that the animal rights group received from the UW via open records requests.  In response to these complaints both federal agencies have sent teams that include veterinarians to look at the animals, records, and research at UW-Madison.

new graphic - AR cycle 10.07.13 ajbIn addition to the USDA and OLAW reviews, during this period the NIH institute funding the sound localization project, the National Institute on Deafness and Communication Disorders (NIDCD), also took action. NIDCD suspended one part of the research— but not the entire project— from April-September 2013 when the final report was issued. Whether the suspension was the result of PETA’s allegations is not clear. What is clear is that the NIH and scientific community have long supported and valued this specific research and– more broadly–  the contribution of animal models to success in this field and advances in scientific understanding and human health. The PI of this work, Professor Tom Yin, has been funded by NIH for many years. As is the case of all NIH-funded research, a competitive expert scientific panel provides rigorous critical analysis of the proposed science. Only a small fraction of proposals are identified as valuable, worthwhile, and likely to succeed. In this case, the PI’s research was deemed justifiable and worthy following scientific review, NIH review, and IACUC review. Furthermore, the scientific contributions Yin’s work is evident in many ways. For example, it is widely cited in the field (e.g., over 5000 citations of his scientific papers). Yin discusses the targeted research in these videos:

In brief, Professor Yin’s laboratory conducts fundamental basic research that has resulted in better understanding of complex brain function and how hearing works. By using a combination of electrophysiological recordings, anatomical studies and behavioral studies, the lab is studying the mechanisms used by the brain to put together inputs from the two ears to improve hearing. The scientific discoveries have public benefit because they provide foundational understanding with broad applicability. Knowing how the brain integrates sound received by both ears and how that allows for localization of sounds is an important part of work towards improving the quality of life and functioning of millions of people with hearing impairment.

Many types of research in this area require recording and studying a real functioning brain, there are no non-animal alternatives. Cats are among the best animal models for this work for a number of reasons. Among them: most of the information we have about the auditory system comes from studies in cats, they are nocturnal hunters with excellent sound localization abilities, and what we know about the cat’s nervous system shows that it is very similar to that of humans. The importance of cats and other animal models to research in this field is widely acknowledged, including by this year’s Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award, and particularly the work of Graeme Clarke, which laid the foundations for the development of multichannel cochlear implants through studies in cats and rats.

As we have discussed previously, consideration of the use of animals in research includes not only weighing its potential benefits, but also evaluation of the animals’ welfare. The welfare of all of research animals is a priority and one that is ensured through the careful efforts of research, veterinary, and animal care personnel. Furthermore, oversight of animals’ care and treatment occurs at individual, institutional, and federal levels. A small number of cats (less than a dozen) participate in UW-Madison’s sound localization research. The cats are healthy and well-adjusted to their work, play, and living environments as was documented in the OLAW report. In that report, external reviewers who had thoroughly reviewed the lab and records, examined the animals, and interviewed the animal care and veterinary personnel, research staff, and scientists were satisfied with the animals’ condition and treatment.  Potential for pain or suffering is minimized through careful efforts: Surgery is performed under deep anesthesia, just like surgery for humans. Infections are a risk, but they affect the animals only a fraction of the time they are in study. Furthermore, infections are caught early through extensive and careful monitoring, treated immediately and resolved quickly in all but a very small number of cases. In no cases are they allowed to be untreated or to cause suffering or unrelieved pain.

OLAW’s summary conclusion, released September 30, confirmed that the research and animal treatment were appropriate: “there was no direct noncompliance with the PHS Policy or serious deviation from the provisions of the Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals.” Furthermore, the report concluded that PETA’s specific allegations were unsupported. The report also acknowledged UW’s efforts to continue refinement in the animals’ care and treatment:  “OLAW found that while the specific allegations did not accurately reflect the entire clinical and research condition of the cats, changes were made to enhance the care of the animals and potentially improve research outcomes.” Furthermore, the report includes many extremely positive descriptions of the animals’ condition and care.

UW responded:

“The OLAW investigation is the third review of the lab and its animal subjects by the federal government, all instigated by PETA within the past year. To date, none of the many allegations of mistreatment made by the organization to the U.S. Department of Agriculture or OLAW have been substantiated. ‘Contrary to the misleading claims made by PETA, the conclusions cited in the OLAW report reflect our view that the animals in the study are in excellent health, are well treated and cared for, and used to further important research in an appropriate and humane manner,’ says Dan Uhlrich, UW-Madison associate vice chancellor for research policy.  ‘Significant university and federal resources have been repeatedly redirected to respond to these unfounded allegations. This is a questionable use of scarce and valuable public resources, which we feel damages the best interests of the public, science, affected researchers, and the dedicated animal care and veterinary staffs responsible for the health and wellbeing of our animals.”

The OLAW summary report, including 36 appendix exhibits, can be found on their website. The UW has also shared detailed information about the research, the reviews, and the animal program with the broad public via its website, release of hundreds of records, and videos in which the scientist and others speak about the value of the work and how it is conducted.  In other words, as we’ve noted before, there are many venues for the public to learn more about the work, its conduct, and the detailed process of regulatory oversight.

What was PETA’s response?

Hint:  It did not include acknowledgement that OLAW, USDA, and the University of Wisconsin gave serious consideration to PETA’s complaint, performed a thorough investigation, and provided a detailed, specific public response on each of the allegations that the animal rights group raised. Nor did PETA’s response include an acknowledgement that perhaps they were wrong.  And nothing in their public responses indicated – front and center – that PETA’s mission and objective is to end all animal research. PETA’s position is fundamentally absolutist. Regardless of animals’ welfare and regardless of the consequences for the public that benefits from responsible, ethical and humanely-conducted animal studies, PETA is opposed to all use of nonhuman animals. Thus, there are presumably no conditions under which PETA would find laboratory animal research acceptable. (We welcome correction from PETA if this is a misrepresentation of their position.)

It is not surprising then that, as reported in the Wisconsin State Journal, PETA’s spokesman did not accept the OLAW conclusion, but rather vowed:  “This campaign is going to continue until that lab is empty and there are no cats in it,’” Goodman said without specifying the group’s next steps.”

PETA’s next steps in its quest to close the laboratory will probably include some of the characteristic stunts for which they are famous. At the UW this has included small protests on campus, the PETA mobile billboard truck driving around Madison, and an actor and PETA staffer gaining media coverage for disruption and arrest at a UW System Board of Regents meeting. Review of their campaign strategy thus far provides a few other clues for what to expect at the UW and elsewhere. For example, last week PETA set up at the campus job fair to recruit for an “undercover investigator.”  PETA’s Jeremy Beckham netted a local television interview with the tactic. Not a new tactic for animal rights groups, as seen in this campaign directed at Oregon Health Sciences University several years ago.

As we’ve written before however, focusing on these stunts and underestimating the broader gains that PETA has made and that negatively affect science and public interests can be a mistake.  In the case of this campaign and all of the associated events, two things in particular are worth notice by the broader community.  First, the way in which PETA used the openness of records and the public responsiveness of the regulatory process to feed their campaign; and second, the use of emotive tactics that encourage harassment of scientists and others in research institutions. The graphic above captures the general strategy used by many activist groups, highlights the costs, and raises a number of questions. In particular, one question that merits serious discussion is how to better assess the full range of actual costs and critical evaluation of realized benefits to animal welfare, science, and public interests.

Despite the conclusion of multiple federal reviews that failed to support their allegations, PETA is continuing to smear the research and to promote petition and email campaigns to the NIH, UW-Madison, and others. As one of the exhibits in the OLAW report shows, the NIDCD received 562 phone calls and approximately 190,000 emails about cat research. While that represents a tiny fraction of the American public and likely includes many form messages, its inclusion in the OLAW report suggests it may have been relevant to the NIH’s response.  No doubt that number increased after PETA linked a form email to its mixed martial arts assault on scientists videogame in order to encourage players to complain to NIH about the UW research.  Of course the game also encourages players to entertain the idea of harming scientists. As we’ve seen before, these highly emotional tactics can have the general effect of eliciting threatening and disturbing messages from those who follow PETA. For example, this recent tweet:

Beth Carter 10.5.13 tweet

The PETA campaign and response following the USDA and OLAW reports makes their objective clear once again:  to end research and close labs. Nothing new there. The question to ask now however, is how research institutions, scientists, federal agencies, and the public should respond to campaigns like this. In particular, this set of events provides additional strong evidence that there is little broad value in engagement with groups that have a singular agenda and little interest in serious dialogue, accuracy, or acknowledgement of the complex issues and choices in animal research conducted for public benefit.  For scientists and research institutions interested in dialogue and better understanding of animal research, using that time and energy to communicate directly with the public about their research, why they are doing it and what it involves makes more sense.

More here:




Extending a Public Conversation on the Ethics of Animal Research

The following is commentary by Prof. Robert Streiffer on a previous post by Dario Ringach. It was originally published on a UW-Madison website but  was subsequently removed.  It is being republished here with his permission, with Dario’s reply to it being published on SR tomorrow.

On March 11, 2013, Rick Marolt and I engaged in a public conversation about the ethics of animal research. Dario Ringach, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at UCLA and contributor to the blog, Speaking of Research, posted an entry with questions and comments about the exchange. I wanted to take this opportunity to extend the public conversation by responding to Professor Ringach. I appreciate Ringach’s attention to our exchange on this significant issue, but some of his criticisms are based on misinterpretations of what I said, and so I welcome this opportunity to clarify my remarks (some of which were probably quite cryptic), respond to some of his criticisms, highlight areas where he and I agree, and acknowledge one issue where I overstated my concern. (I should note that I am only considering Ringach’s remarks as they concern my part of the conversation.)

Ringach’s comments relevant to my remarks are in the sections of his post entitled “The good,” The curious”, “Mind the gap,” “the bad,” and “the inconsistent,” and I will address them in that order.

The Good
Let me begin by expressing my appreciation for Ringach’s expression of support for the event. I think that engaging in this kind of public dialogue about the ethics of animal research helps overcome the polarization of the debate, and helps improve peoples’ understanding of both the scientific and ethical aspects of animal research. In addition, participating in these kinds of public discussions is a core part of the service component of my job as a professor at a public university. So, I am grateful for Ringach’s supportive words on this point.

The Curious:
Ringach is puzzled by the fact that Marolt and I spent such a long time discussing utilitarianism. I agree that the discussion of utilitarianism went on for too long. The intention was to start with utilitarianism and then to spend more time exploring other frameworks. However, contrary to what Ringach claims, we did not assume that scientists are always utilitarians, or that the only justification for animal research must appeal to utilitarianism. First, I noted that most people who support animal research think that utilitarianism does not correctly capture our obligations to human beings. Second, I pointed out that even though supporters of animal research sometimes describe themselves as utilitarians-when-it comes-to-animals-but-rights-theorists-when-it comes-to human-beings (whom I refer to as “hybrid utilitarians”), they are probably not accurately characterizing their own views. For example, I expect that when they reflect on their obligations to their own pets, they probably believe that there are ways in which it would be wrong to treat their pets even though doing so would maximize utility.

Nonetheless, both utilitarianism and hybrid utilitarianism are commonly invoked or are implicitly presupposed in attempts to justify animal research, and so do merit discussion.

As an example of one non-utilitarian view, Ringach’s cites his own article, “The Use of Nonhuman Animals in Biomedical Research.” The “sliding-scale” framework he presents there is certainly not utilitarian. It accords rights to individuals that are “able to participate as autonomous rational agents in our moral community,” it accords a higher degree of moral status to individuals with a higher degree of “cognitive, affective, and social complexity” (although he later modifies the framework so that an individual’s moral status is affected by his or her relational properties), and it requires that the interests of individuals with a higher moral status be given priority over the interests of individuals with a lower degree of moral status. But Ringach never specifies how the sliding-scale framework adjudicates a conflict of interest between individuals who don’t have rights and who possess the same degree of moral status, and so, for all he has said, the sliding-scale framework could still take a utilitarian form with respect to such conflicts. If it does, such a framework would still be subject to a concern similar to the one I raised about utilitarianism and hybrid utilitarianism.

That concern notwithstanding, I highly recommend Ringach’s article as a presentation of the pro-animal-research position. It is one of the few papers by a scientist that explicitly and concisely explores not just several of the empirical aspects of the debate but also many of the philosophical aspects as well. And I certainly endorse Ringach’s call for more scientists to publicly discuss their views on the science and ethics of animal research rather than to leave it to others to speculate and hypothesize about what their views are.

Mind the Gap
Ringach is correct that discussing examples of actual research that Marolt would find ethical would have helpfully highlighted some common ground and led to a more productive and balanced discussion. I will try to keep this in mind for future reference.

I would note, though, that this point needs to be applied in a fair way: many animal researchers are reluctant to publicly discuss examples of actual research that they find unethical, even though doing so would also help highlight common ground and lead to more productive and balanced discussions. For example, Ringach’s article which I mentioned above never acknowledges any actual examples of unethical animal research.

The Bad
In this section, Ringach presents what appears to be his most pressing concern. It stems from my concurrence with Marolt’s view that, if all a study does is produce knowledge for a researcher or a community of researchers without that knowledge ever ultimately leading to any further benefits, then the knowledge produced is not a very significant benefit. Ringach says that this view, which he inaccurately summarizes in the words “knowledge is not a significant benefit,” is an “insult to reason” that betrays a misunderstanding of the scientific process and a failure to appreciate negative results in science. Ringach thinks that this view implies that I must not see much value in abstract mathematics, space exploration, physics, or astronomy, and that I must be “oblivious” to the fact that basic research has led to many medical imaging technologies.

I won’t speak for Marolt, but Ringach’s concerns here regarding what I said are based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the two key points I was making and ignores almost the entirety of what I said regarding them. I therefore welcome this opportunity to clarify and expand on my views.

The first key point I was making is that there is a distinction between knowledge and benefit per se and that research, in the first instance, produces knowledge, not benefit. The phrases “in the first instance” and “per se” are important here. While knowledge often leads to benefits, research can produce knowledge without producing any benefit at all. However, this conceptual point does not imply that research that does not produce benefits is not valuable, as there is also a distinction between the concept of a benefit, which I take to be an improvement in individual well-being, and the more general concept of value. It is thus perfectly consistent to say that something is not itself a benefit and that it does not lead to benefits while maintaining that it is nonetheless valuable. Indeed, I explicitly stated that there are significant kinds of knowledge worth spending a fair bit of money on even if they do not actually improve anyone’s well-being.

Nor do these conceptual points imply that basic research has not led to many beneficial technologies. I even mentioned one of Ringach’s examples, space exploration, saying that although it is often used as a stock example of research that doesn’t produce improvements in individuals’ well-being, it actually has produced all kinds of ancillary benefits, and that funding it would be justified even if it hadn’t. Marolt and I did not discuss the other examples of abstract mathematics, etc., but I would make the same two points about those. They often produce benefits in unanticipated ways, and they can be justified by the value of the knowledge they produce even if they did not in fact produce improvements in individual well-being.

However, the second key point I made is that, when one is evaluating research that harms and kills animals, the moral threshold is higher than it is with other academic pursuits: that kind of research cannot be justified merely on the grounds that it produces knowledge if that knowledge is “totally unrelated to anything practical” (by which I meant “totally unrelated to improving individual well-being”). Ringach’s objections to this point, examples of basic research leading to medical imaging technology, are logically irrelevant, since the basic research that led to their development was not totally unrelated to anything practical: it ultimately led to beneficial technologies. None of Ringach’s examples are of the right form to constitute an objection to either of the two key points I was making at this point in the dialogue.

In my remarks, I also acknowledged the difficulty in evaluating, before the fact, whether specific animal research will be related to improvements in individual well-being. Even if some animal research, tragically, didn’t result in any knowledge at all, that alone wouldn’t show that the original decision to pursue the research was unjustified. In some cases, it would have been reasonable at the onset of the research to think it would ultimately contribute to benefits significant enough to justify the research, even if eventually it did not.

I do agree that I was overly dismissive of what can be learned from poorly designed experiments or experiments that fail to produce the intended knowledge. I am appreciative of the audience member who pressed me on this during the Q&A, at which point I did concede that one can learn something even from poorly designed or unsuccessful experiments and that both positive and negative results can lead to benefits. However, I’ve never heard of an IACUC approving research that involves harming and killing animals, when they believe the research to be poorly designed or believe that it would not produce the intended knowledge, merely in the hopes that we might learn something useful. So I don’t think that this concession has much practical import.

The Inconsistent
Ringach notes that I voted against Ned Kalin’s protocol on the grounds that the value of the data did not justify the harms to the animals, especially given other research avenues that would also benefit those suffering from anxiety disorders, even though they would not directly answer Kalin’s specific scientific question. But Ringach wonders how it is then consistent for me to also acknowledge, as I did, that I didn’t fully understand the details of the analyses the researchers were going to perform on the brain tissue of the moneys to establish the molecular pathways involved in anxiety.

Perhaps I am missing Ringach’s point, but it seems to me that there is no inconsistency here at all. Given what Kalin and the other scientists on the Committees said, it seemed reasonable for me to defer to their expertise and assume that the protocol’s proposed analyses would establish which molecular pathways were involved in anxiety. I then had to decide how important I considered that knowledge to be. Just as I don’t need to fully understand how Google Maps produces its maps to evaluate how useful they are, I also don’t need to fully understand how Kalin was going to answer his scientific question to have a view about its importance. I think this is often the situation with individual IACUC members, both scientists and non-scientists alike: they don’t need to understand every single scientific detail of the methods to have a reasonable and informed opinion about the significant of the anticipated findings. (Of course, the committee as a whole needs to have, or have access to, sufficient expertise to evaluate scientific validity of the protocols they review.)

In closing, I appreciate Ringach’s contribution to this particular discussion as well as his work encouraging public dialogue more generally, and I hope that my responses here further advance the discussion.

Robert Streiffer, Ph. D.
Associate Professor of Bioethics and Philosophy
University of Wisconsin, Madison