Adventures in Ethics and Science

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.

You can read the AP’s story here and the PCRM press release about the lawsuit here.


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.

Comments

  1. #1 Neuro-conservative
    July 31, 2007

    Take a look at their website (pcrm.org). While they are a group that contains physicians, they most definitely are an animal rights organization. They promote veganism and appear to be opposed to all animal research (and much of human research as well).

    The targets of this lawsuit, on the other hand, publish in top-ranked journals including Science, Nature, Nature Neuroscience, J. Neuroci, and Neuron. They are also well-funded by the NIH. Thus, it would seem that the researchers’ scientific peers would disagree with the PCRM about the scientific merit of their work. These journals don’t typically publish work that is duplicative or uninformative.

    Based on the 3 major concerns you cite at the top of this post, this lawsuit is not about clean cages or adequate daily care. This is about fundamentally stopping the research process, as the PCRM would accord to itself (rather than the scientific community) the right to determine what research was informative or necessary.

  2. #2 T. Bruce McNeely
    August 1, 2007

    Will the folks who are generally favorable toward research with animals be inclined to take a lawsuit filed by a physicians’ group (rather than an animal rights organization) more seriously?

    The so-called PCRM IS an animal rights group. They have close administrative and financial ties to PETA, their membership is less than 5% physicians, and they have been censured by several physicians’ groups for misleading and just plain incorrect statements about animal research. They have NO credibility among people who are knowledgeable about animal research.

  3. #3 Justin Moretti
    August 1, 2007

    If you’re going to allow legislation to stop animal-based research, you need to also allow legislation to stop PETA members and like-thinkers from receiving medical treatment derived from animal-based research.

    (Mind you, given the cognitive and other links between PETA-like animal libbers and drooling slavish woo-followers, that might not add up to depriving them of much…)

    “Yes, well, we’d like to be able to cure your child’s leukaemia, but I’m afraid the treatment was devised in laboratories that you picketed last week, demanding their closure, and all the research was derived from torturing mice and fluffy bunnies in crowded cages. But if you still want us to save your child… well, I suppose we can cope with the stain on our consciences…” :-p

    (I would so like to see John Cleese do this.)

  4. #4 Thomas
    August 1, 2007

    Justin, your concern was already handled after WW II when doctors struggled with whether or not it was ethical to use the results of nazi research on human subjects. In the end it was decided that since those people were already dead no good would come out of discarding the results. Animal rights activists can use exactly the same defense. The animals used to get those results are already dead, what good would it do not to use the results?

    If you want a real dilemma, what about how they would react if bitten by a snake and they found out that the only serum that could help them was derived by injecting a horse with snake venom and then extracting its blood?

  5. #5 forhecancreep
    August 1, 2007

    PCRM, whose membership, as noted above, is only 5% physicians, started as an off-shoot of PETA. The animal rights newspaper Animal People has documented this for years for its annual “Who Gets the Money?” feature, in which the editor analyzes tax records of animal rights organizations to help readers decide where their donations would be most useful. The very fact that the paper includes PCRM in its analysis is evidence of the group’s true purpose.

    For years Animal People has noted the existence of a foundation whose only purposed appeared to be to funnel money from PETA to PCRM and to hide the administrative costs of both organizations so that charity watch groups wouldn’t see how great a proportion of their money went to administrative costs.

    In recent years, PCRM has grown stronger and no longer needs PETA’s support, so it severed its connection to this foundation in the hopes of hiding the link between the two groups. Now PCRM has its own foundation with which to hide its costs.

    Some Animal People archives are available online:

    2003: http://www.animalpeoplenews.org/03/12/budget.assetNotes1203.html footnote 18

    2004: http://www.animalpeoplenews.org/04/12/watchdog3-12.04.htm footnote 18

    2005: http://www.animalpeoplenews.org/05/12/watchWhogetsthemoney12.05.htm By now they’ve split–footnotes K and Y

    As further evidence that it is an animal rights group, PCRM was a sponsor of the animal rights conference “Taking Action for the Animals.” It has likewise joined with PETA and other animal rights groups to campaign against major medical charities that sponsor animal research, including the March of Dimes. Also, a few months ago, PCRM entered testimony at a DC Council meeting debating an animal rights bill. The group’s testimony was solely focused on euthanizing animals at DC shelters. Whatever your feelings on the matter, what does the no-kill status of an animal shelter have to do with “medicine”?

  6. #6 Ilya Zlatkovsky
    August 1, 2007

    I sense ad hominem attacks against the PCRM. That’s not to say that they don’t deserve it. But I would like to see if the researchers at UCSF are following guidelines, as some of the complaints that the so called physicians make are pretty fair.

  7. #7 Clinton
    August 1, 2007

    The response of those who believe animal research is justified depends on the scope and nature of the violation.

    Given that extremist animal rights groups like this one (not sure why you are temporizing here Janet? the evidence is clear and they don’t really deny it) call any use of animals a serious violation of something or other it is hard to make anything out of the minimal description of the allegation.

    The things a reasonable person wishes to know are:

    Is the violation repeated and willing on the part of UCSF or a mistake/neglect that was corrected?

    Is it a matter of conflicting interpretations of the AWA? The latter, not to mention all the other sources of guidance you have nicely cited, can be pretty nonspecific when it really comes down to the nitty gritty. They can also conflict, depending on ones’ interpretation. There are, for example some parts of the AWA which could be taken to suggest that a very (and I mean VERY) commonly used experimental technique is illegal. The fact that the practice is so widespread suggests that a different interpretation of the AWA passage is the correct one. But try getting one of the activists to accept this.

    Is the violation substantive? For example is there proof that post-surgical analgesic was not provided or was the record keeping sloppy? Was a protocol expired but approval had been granted previously, the renewal was under consideration and approved subsequent to the “event”? Are these matters of documentation or animal treatment? Equivalent violations from the USDA perspective but very different matters to most observers.

    What does it mean to document the consideration of alternatives and unnecessary duplication- is UCSF violating something that has become a de facto standard way to do this? Or do the accusers reject the “unecessary” part of the requirement? in the mind of the accusers is there any such thing as a valid consideration of alternatives that DOES find animal research justified?

    With respect to your question about rats versus dogs or monkeys, obviously not. But pertinent to this lawsuit understand that only some experimental species are under the USDA jurisdiction and that the AWA, etc can be species-specific in places as well. I’d have to look for it but I think that this has worked via specific exception legislation for rats and mice (memory suggests the most recent one was a Helms bill). In local practice (and as it should be IMO) the standards are different for USDA/nonUSDA species all along the process of protocol approval even in ways that are not directly mentioned by regulation. Some of the specifics may therefore not apply had it been rats.

  8. #8 Janet D. Stemwedel
    August 1, 2007

    I’m wary of calling anyone a PETA front just because I hold PETA in such low regard — if the PCRM is, then it is, but the connection was not blindingly obvious to me from what I had in front of me writing the post. (If they hid it, well, there’s good reason to be suspicious that their ultimate goals may differ from the representations they made to the press, and I’m no fan of liars.)

    I really don’t know how the facts will shake out in the case. Some universities have forms to submit protocols to the IACUC that include clear spaces to do things like list the alternatives you’ve considered and give the rationale for the procedure you’ve proposed — making it easier to document that you’ve done what the law says you should do. I don’t know what the UCSF forms look like.

    It’s true that not documenting that you’ve considered alternatives doesn’t mean that you haven’t considered alternatives, but researchers, IACUCs, and the feds probably work better together without assuming any of the involved parties have psychic powers.

    And yes, which animals are regulated and by whom is a complicated patchwork. (From the point of view of AWA and HREA, if I recall correctly, invertebrates don’t count as animals.) I’d be interested to see how closely the regulated species map to the species that might be described as “charismatic” (from a public relations point of view).

  9. #9 Neuro-conservative
    August 1, 2007

    Janet — I’m not sure why you’re giving these guys the benefit of the doubt. A few minutes on google is all it takes. For example, take a look at this article from the Guardian: http://observer.guardian.co.uk/focus/story/0,6903,1273697,00.html. If you oppose PETA and their (even more) extremist offshoots, then you should not be giving credence to PCRM.

  10. #10 Janet D. Stemwedel
    August 1, 2007

    Janet — I’m not sure why you’re giving these guys the benefit of the doubt.

    I’m not any more — you’ve convinced me.

  11. #11 forhecancreep
    August 2, 2007

    As to the “charismatic” question, it looks like you called it. According to the APHIS website guinea pigs, rabbits, hamsters, cats, dogs, non-human primates, sheep, pigs, and “other farm animals” used in medical research are covered by the AWA. It is important to note, however, that rats and mice, though not in the AWA are in the PHS policy, so the care of rats and mice in federally funded research is regulated.

  12. #12 Michelle Tsai
    August 3, 2007

    Are these the types of research you want to defend at UCSF?

    http://www.indybay.org/newsitems/2005/03/17/17276801.php

    Next, I’m including UC Berkeley research as well, please take a moment and review all the links at the beginning of the following link to open your eyes: http://www.indybay.org/newsitems/2006/12/24/18340436.php?show_comments=1#18341978

    Lastly, do check out the following: http://www.curedisease.net/safermedicines/video.shtml

    Be careful who you side with. We all die one day. At my deathbead, all I’d want if I’m in great pain is some morphine and to die peacefully. If you support the insanity that trully good-hearted and intelligent people are trying to stop, then perhaps in another life you should be born a lab animal. Oh the hideous arrogance of the “well-educated.”

    Michelle

  13. #13 Michelle Tsai
    August 3, 2007

    Are these the types of research you want to defend at UCSF?

    http://www.indybay.org/newsitems/2005/03/17/17276801.php

    Next, I’m including UC Berkeley research as well, please take a moment and review all the links at the beginning of the following link to open your eyes: http://www.indybay.org/newsitems/2006/12/24/18340436.php?show_comments=1#18341978

    Lastly, do check out the following: http://www.curedisease.net/safermedicines/video.shtml

    Be careful who you side with. We all die one day. At my deathbed, all I’d want if I’m in great pain is some morphine and to die peacefully. If you support the insanity that truly good-hearted and intelligent people are trying to stop, then perhaps in another life you should be born a lab animal. Oh the hideous arrogance of the “well-educated.”

    Michelle

  14. #14 Clinton
    August 7, 2007

    “We all die one day. At my deathbed, all I’d want if I’m in great pain is some morphine and to die peacefully.”

    a nice fantasy. trouble is even people who have “pull the plug” orders have a tendency to backslide at the end of life, accept some medical procedures and cling on. people who have principles have a suspicious habit of abandoning them when it is *their* life, *their* kids’ life, etc. and the end-of-life is a convenient but misleading example. let’s talk about heart conditions that would have previously led to death at 45 but now people routinely live another 20 years. let’s talk about deaths in childbirth (mother and child). Let’s talk about cancer survivors. trauma victims. etc. I challenge you to show me those activists who are so convinced that they forgo all modern medical attention (which has all been touched in some way by animal research) forever and anon for they and theirs.

    Oh the hideous hypocrisy of the animal rights’ extremist.

  15. #15 cooler
    August 11, 2007

    Peter singer wrote alot about this, its not intelligence that matters, its the amount of pain that you can feel, would it be more ethical to experiment on a mentally disabled man than a man with a normal IQ? Of course not, because its not intelligence that matters, just your ability to feel pain.

    For example if a race evolved from us that was much more intelligent than we are, would they have a right to experiment on us? I would say no, some would say this is not possible, but just because you can get away with something does not make it right.

  16. #16 Michelle Tsai
    August 16, 2007

    And I challenge *Clinton* to show the exact links that the aforementioned animal experiments will “touch” those maladies he mentioned. What’s not necessary is not necessary. There are better ways to study things. Enough of using scare tactics and excuses to fill pockets and bolster prestige.

  17. #17 Neuro-conservative
    November 28, 2007
  18. #18 Clinton
    November 28, 2007

    Thanks for posting N-c.

    Think this will get the sort of play the original accusation did? heck no.

    for those too lazy to visit the link, the issue here was not a finding of lack of merit in the accusations. it was a finding on the part of the judge that the federal system for oversight was the appropriate one and that individuals had no standing to launch suits like this one. on the one hand this is good because judge is saying that the evidence presented to him suggests that the system works fine. something that I try to point out in these comment threads. in a broader view a bit disappointing because it will result in more accusations of “the Man” covering up abuses. better in some senses to air the evidence and have a finding after a full trial process.

    Never the less, this is what it is. The third branch of govt weighing in on the issue and rejecting at least the accusations that there is a problem with the way the executive branch handles its responsibility under the AWA.

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