Today a number of doctors affiliated with the nonprofit Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) filed suit against the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) alleging that state funds are paying for research that violates the Animal Welfare Act. Among the big concerns raised in the suit:
- Experiments that were “duplicative” — i.e., whose outcomes were essentially known before the experiment from experiments already conducted.
- Experiments where there was no documentation that the researchers had considered alternative that would minimize the animals’ distress.
- Experiments where the justification given for the animal distress (gaining insight into how to alleviate Alzheimer’s disease) is problematic, because the neural system under study in the animals is not involved in Alzheimer’s disease.
There are a number of interesting questions related to this suit, such as:
- If taxpayer money is used to support biomedical research, how much oversight should the taxpayers have? (And should a nonprofit be able to sue on the taxpayers’ behalf?)
- Will the folks who are generally favorable toward research with animals be inclined to take a lawsuit filed by a group that presents itself as a physicians’ group (rather than an animal rights organization) more seriously? (As two commenters have noted, the PCRM has a history of advocating a vegan diet, alternatives to animal research and, although I can’t quite verify this with the links I have, close ties to PETA.)
- If the suit demonstrates that UCSF did in fact violate the Animal Welfare Act, how serious a problem will this be judged by the folks who are generally favorable toward research with animals?
- What kind of lessons are there in this case for Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees (IACUCs)? UCSF presumably has one that reviews all the experimental protocols to ensure compliance with the Animal Welfare Act. If they’re out of compliance, how did the IACUC let that happen?
- Is the assumption that a properly functioning IACUC is enough to keep a university’s research with animals in compliance with the Animal Welfare Act a safe one? Should there be an additional layer of accountability in the process, and if so, what should it look like?
- If the animals in question were rats rather than monkeys and dogs, would anyone be making a big deal about this? (Would the press take any notice?)
- Given that a certain amount of reproducibility is necessary before scientists are willing to call a finding knowledge, what’s the appropriate balance between epistemic interests (we need to be sure these results are robust) and avoiding unnecessary animal distress?
Feel free to take a crack at these questions, and to let me know if there are others I’ve overlooked. We’ll see what happens as the lawsuit proceeds.
UPDATE: Thanks to the commenters who point out that the PCRM makes “alternatives to animal research” central to its agenda (although they’re a little cagey in this position paper as to whether they want to end animal research altogether right now)– meaning that it is less straightforwardly a physicians’ group than its name would indicate. Of course, this raises the additional question of how seriously you can take calls to bring animal research into compliance with federal law from a group that may intend to end animal research altogether.