Adventures in Ethics and Science

Wrestling overgrown rose bushes out of the ground may be harder than wrestling gators. (At the very least, it seems to take longer, while provoking less sympathy).

Anyway, while I’m recovering from that, here’s a “classic” post from the old location. It was originally posted 5 January 2006, but the ethical issues are still fresh.

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Since I’m in the blessed wee period between semesters, it’s time to revisit some “old news” (i.e., stuff that I had to set aside in the end-of-semester crush). Today, a story from about a month ago, wherein the Rick Weiss of the Washington Post reports on the University of North Carolina’s troubles obeying animal welfare regulations in its research labs.


You knew that the National Institutes of Health had all sorts of regulations governing the use of animals in research (and even an Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare, whose webpages have a bunch of helpful links for those involved in such research), right? You’d assume that the folks running a major research university (like UNC) would know that, too. Because you know who else knows it? PETA. And somehow, PETA had an inkling that researchers at UNC were maybe not taking the regulations on animal use all that seriously.

From the WaPo article linked above:

At the center of the storm is the University of North Carolina, which in the past four years has twice had the misfortune of hiring animal laboratory technicians who turned out to be undercover agents for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

The first instance produced embarrassing video footage taken by the employee (one clip showed a lab worker using scissors to cut the heads off of baby rats while saying: “I don’t put them to sleep. Maybe it’s illegal, but it’s easier.”). It led to a damning report from the federal Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare. But no sanctions came down from that office, part of the National Institutes of Health, because by the end of that investigation OLAW had determined that the problems had been corrected.

By then, however, PETA had managed to have a new agent hired by UNC. After an 11-month tour of duty, that employee released a new batch of evidence, including more photos and videos, and OLAW opened a new investigation.

The recently released report of that second investigation is remarkable for its similarity to the first report, PETA activists note — including its conclusion that no action needs to be taken because of reassurances that the university has again resolved the problems.

“We looked at the new report and thought, ‘Did they just cut and paste the old one or what?’ ” said Kate Turlington, the PETA investigator who conducted the first undercover operation, during which she wore a hidden video camera while caring for sick lab animals and talking to co-workers.

Goodness gracious, where to start?

First, the NIH, whose regulations we’re talking about. It seems like only yesterday I was blogging about problems that flow from having rules without meaningful enforcement. Maybe the NIH is applying major pressure to UNC behind the scenes to really address the problems with the treatment of its laboratory animals. (Maybe NIH can send in undercover agents as lab technicians!) Or maybe, being part of the federal government, NIH is not having such an easy time, what with resource issues and political pressures, functioning as we would like it to.

Not that I’m at all cynical about the government these days.

What about the UNC employees whose conduct PETA recorded and brought to light? It seems pretty clear that they were not only violating the regulations, but were also aware that they were violating the regulations. (“Maybe it’s illegal, but it’s easier.”) Folks, this isn’t lobbying or energy trading. This is laboratory science. It would also be easier to experiment on just two rats rather than hundreds. Or, for that matter, to just say you experimented on some rats and make up some persuasive data. Easy isn’t what’s driving the process here, and breaking the law is frowned upon.

So, UNC gets caught violating animal welfare regulations. They get hit with the “damning report” from OLAW. No sanctions from NIH yet, but the unpleasant publicity from PETA. You would think at that point that someone in charge at UNC would take serious action to make sure everyone doing animal research at UNC cleaned up his or her act. Otherwise, you’d be risking sanctions from an NIH angered that the “damning report” from OLAW had been ignored. And, you’d be risking putting your institution in a position where what PETA claims about it is true. Which, from a public relations point of view, seems like a mighty big risk.

And, which makes the subsequent PETA exposé pretty damn embarrassing (or should, if there is any self-awareness and shame still possible among those who oversee animal research at UNC). It almost looks like, institutionally, UNC doesn’t care about animal welfare regulations. This is a problematic stance if, say, you’d like to take money from the federal government to support your research with animals. Moreover, paying lip service to the regulations without making sure they are followed is lax management at best; if you have a principled disagreement with the regulations, presenting reasoned arguments against them is much less slimy than winking at them and taking the money.

The most horrifying part of this all for UNC has got to be making PETA look (comparatively) reasonable. PETA doesn’t want any animals used for research (or food, or clothing). PETA is not generally viewed as a voice of reason or moderation. PETA would have you believe that research with animals is usually inhumane, and that scientists and lab technicians can’t be trusted to follow the animal welfare regulations.

Thanks to UNC, they have some hard evidence to back up that claim. This, coupled with the NIH’s seeming unwillingness to actually enforce the regulations, has got to make things harder, at least on the PR front, for other scientists doing research with animals, even those who follow the animal welfare regulations scrupulously. When the public sees this kind of story, what’s that going to do to the center of gravity of public opinion on animal research in particular and on the trustworthiness of science in general?

Nothing good.

But now, the very best part of the WaPo story:

Tony Waldrop, UNC’s vice chancellor for research and development, said that many of the problems found in the second inspection were remnants of problems from earlier on, which were still in the process of being corrected. “It was not new information,” he said, noting that a recent follow-up inspection resulted in “an absolute clean bill of health and full accreditation.”

Perhaps most important, UNC says it has updated its screening and background checks for new hires.

In other words: It takes time to get the lab techs to actually treat animals humanely rather than breaking the law because it’s easier; it’s not like we can just tell our employees what to do! But in the meantime, we’ll make damn sure we don’t hire anyone who has worked with PETA or who shows other indications of a concern for animal welfare. That hasn’t worked out so well for us.