You’ve probably heard that UCLA scientist Edythe London, whose house was earlier vandalized to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars by animal rights activists, has once again been targeted. This time an incendiary device was left on her front door.
Abel and Mark weighed in on this appalling use of tactics to terrorize a scientist doing work on approved protocols — protocols that had to meet the stringent standards imposed by federal regulations. But while the NIH and the odd newspaper columnist stands up to make the case for animal use in medical research and against the violent intimidation of medical researchers, there seems not to be much in the way of public outcry.
Do people really feel like firebombing is a legitimate means of persuasion?
My guess is that they don’t. However, some of the details of the situation as described in a recent article in the Los Angeles Times may explain why the public is conflicted. Beyond animal use, the area of London’s research and the source of her funding seem to be raising discomfort, creating a tangled knot of controversy that’s begging to be untangled.
The article opens:
Here’s a recipe for academic controversy:
First, find dozens of hard-core teenage smokers as young as 14 and study their brains with high-tech scans. Second, feed vervet monkeys liquid nicotine and then kill at least six of them to examine their brains. Third, accept $6 million from tobacco giant Philip Morris to pay for it all. Fourth, cloak the project in unusual secrecy.
At UCLA, a team of researchers is following this formula to produce what it hopes will be a groundbreaking study of addiction. So far, the scientists have proved that the issues of animal testing and tobacco-funded research are among the most contentious on university campuses.
UCLA professor Edythe London, the lead scientist on the three-year study, said it could discover new ways to help people quit smoking and lead to innovative treatments for other addictions.
“We are doing this because we really want to save lives,” she said. “I am really proud of what we are doing. We have a track record for contributing to science, and we would like to bring that to bear on the problem of nicotine addiction.”
First knot: animal use.
London’s research involves animals, including rats and vervet monkeys. A number of these animals will be administered nicotine, and a number will be killed so that there brains can be examined to determine the effects of the nicotine.
Is this use of animals in research appropriate? The protocols were scrutinized by UCLA’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee before they were approved. To be approved, they needed to demonstrate that the appropriate measures would be taken to minimize animal discomfort and distress, that the researchers had looked into ways to reduce the number of animals used or to replace animal use, that the proposed studies would not duplicate prior studies (which would amount to using animals without the hope of producing additional knowledge), and so forth.
The fact that the IACUC approved London’s protocols indicates that this committee was satisfied that the animal use in her research was appropriate and would be done humanely.
ALF, the group that claimed credit for the earlier flooding of London’s house would disagree — but we shouldn’t forget, ALF’s stated aim is to end all animal experimentation. Satisfying stringent federal requirements for the humane use of animals in research would not satisfy ALF at all.
It’s quite likely that most members of the public are not opposed to all animal research (or use, for that matter — even in California, Americans eat a lot of meat). It’s probably just as likely that a lot of members of the public are not sure that every scientific research projects involving animal use is worthwhile. That this one involves vervet monkeys as well as rats might make the public less likely to jump to London’s defense. So, too, might the question her research addresses.
Second knot: nicotine addiction.
London describes her research as aiming at an understanding of why adolescents smoke and at a determination of what smoking-cessation techniques are effective with young smokers. From the article:
In the first phase, researchers will test smoking-cessation techniques on 200 smokers between 14 and 20, an age when the brain is still developing. London said one focus is to understand why young people smoke, including whether depression or attention-deficit disorder contributes to the habit.
For the second phase, researchers will recruit 40 hard-core smokers, most of them from the first study group, as well as a control group of 40 nonsmokers, London said.
They will undergo functional MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans of their brains while they take psychological and personality tests.
The third phase will focus on animals. Researchers will administer liquid nicotine to adolescent and adult vervet monkeys, London said. The monkeys will undergo different behavioral tests and have PET (positron emission tomography) scans of their brains.
Eventually, six to 12 monkeys will be killed and their brains studied, Peccei said.
London, who has been at UCLA since 2001, hopes that the research will lead to a new understanding of how addiction works.
“It’s very important to do animal studies,” she said. “The animal studies are very focused on the effects of nicotine during development and the ability of the brain to do its work.”
Note that the research project as a whole involves animal and human subjects. These are subjects who are taking on some risk in order that the research produce some knowledge.
And I wonder if the public thinks the particular knowledge in question isn’t that important.
After all, we all know that smoking is bad for you, that cigarettes are addictive, and that smoking is a choice. (Is smoking a choice after you’re addicted? My hunch is that the public thinks so.) Why do we need scientific research to establish what everyone knows? And why commit resources to learning how best to treat a problem that seems 100% avoidable, if only those teenagers would never take the first puff?
If the research dealt with a genetic disease, rather than nicotine addiction, would the public be more willing to decry the attacks aimed at scaring Edythe London out of research with animals? Is the public less conflicted about the use of animals in the study than about research aimed at addressing as a medical condition what they view as a moral failing?
Third knot: funding from the tobacco industry.
Complicating the public’s uneasy relationship with the subject of London’s research is the source of her research funding:
Philip Morris, which is paying for 23 research projects at seven UC campuses, supports the UCLA study as part of the company’s effort “to reduce youth tobacco use and increase scientific understanding in the field,” said William Phelps, a Philip Morris spokesman.
He said the company has no intention of using the results or teenagers’ brain scans to develop more addictive cigarettes. “We would never do that,” he said.
Phelps declined to comment on the use of animals in the study.
Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco), who backed efforts by an activist to obtain a copy of the grant proposal, said UC has no business accepting money from tobacco companies.
“It is absolutely outrageous to see this kind of funding and this type of research within the UC system,” said Yee, a psychologist. “The fact that a piece of research is funded by the tobacco industry, and their singular issue is how to sell cigarettes, taints the results of whatever the findings might be.”
At UCLA, as at other University of California campuses, faculty members are free to accept money from any source. The only restriction is that studies involving animal and human subjects be approved by university review committees to ensure that they meet standards for the treatment of their subjects, university officials said.
For more than a year, anti-tobacco scientists and activists have pushed UC to prohibit faculty from accepting money from tobacco companies for research on tobacco. The Board of Regents, citing academic freedom, agreed instead to establish a committee that will review tobacco company research proposals.
UCLA officials say that the idea for the study of teenagers and monkeys originated with Philip Morris.
Phelps said Philip Morris began searching the country in 2006 for scientists who might be interested in conducting research on helping adolescents quit smoking. The search led the company to London, a noted UCLA professor of psychiatry and pharmacology who had studied addiction at the National Institutes of Health.
Philip Morris invited London to submit a grant proposal, which she did, said Carol Stogsdill, senior executive director of UCLA’s media relations office. The company awarded London $6 million to establish the Adolescent Smoking Cessation Center at the school and conduct the study on teenage and animal brains.
It’s not ridiculous to think that Philip Morris might have an agenda in funding London’s research — although whether the agenda is helping to get kids off cigarettes or to get more kids hooked on cigarettes depends on who you ask.
If, as California State Senator Leland Yee argues, the agenda of the corporation putting up the funding taints the research, what does this mean for pharmaceutical research, or automobile safety research, or any other line of research that is supported with corporate dollars?
Would the research be less biased if Philip Morris did it in-house than if they funded the research in academic labs?
Is the state of California going to provide the funds so that researchers can study nicotine addiction without taking money from Philip Morris?
While it’s quite possible that results could be biased by an unconscious loyalty to one’s funders, the tobacco industry’s track record would probably put one on notice for pressure to come to a certain conclusion. Whether Philip Morris has a stable of evil cigarette engineers ready to take brain scans and use them to make cigarettes more effective … well, I wouldn’t want to speculate.
Fourth knot: secrecy.
We have a researcher using rats, monkeys, and teenagers to study a condition that the public views through a lens of morality with funds provided by an industry that has lied before in order to keep selling their product.
That this researcher is working at a public university means that the public (at least in theory) expects to be able to get the details of what exactly is going on.
UCLA has attempted to keep quiet about London’s study out of fear of attacks on its researchers.
Animal rights activists were suspected in June of placing a bomb under the car of a UCLA ophthalmologist who had conducted tests on monkeys. In 2005, another UCLA researcher who conducted animal studies was targeted by a bomb at a residence. Neither device went off.
In September, UCLA responded to a Public Records Act request from anti-smoking activist Kimberlee Homer Vagadori by releasing a heavily redacted copy of London’s grant proposal. There were so many deletions from the document that tobacco foes charged that the university was trying to hide work for Philip Morris.
In response to a subsequent Public Records Act request from The Times, UCLA provided more details but released virtually no information on the animal studies, citing the danger to its staff if specifics were made public.
Officials said it was the first time UCLA had withheld research information on the grounds of public safety. Peccei, who oversees research at the campus, acknowledged that UCLA could face a legal challenge but said that protecting researchers comes first.
“It’s not like we are trying to protect this Philip Morris center because we have some secret to hide,” Peccei said. “We will probably wind up in court, but we don’t want firebombs in the backyards of people who work on animals.”
The contentious issue is the reason for the secrecy. UCLA insists that the aim is to protect researchers who use animals from attacks of the sort directed at London (among others). When openness facilitates the placement of firebombs by groups who reject any sort of research with animals, it seems prudent to keep certain details secret.
Note that this is not the same as keeping all the details of the research secret from everyone. The IACUC had to approve the protocols, and the protocols had to be explicit in their details. Also, IACUCs include a representative of the community (in this case, a member unaffiliated with UCLA) and a non-scientist. This means that the public is represented in the IACUC’s decisions.
However, there are some who seem sure the secrecy has less to do with the safety of the investigators from harassment and physical violence and more to do with protecting the evil machinations of Philip Morris:
“It’s stunning in this day and age that a university would do secret research for the tobacco industry on the brains of children,” said Matt Meyers of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids in Washington, D.C. “It raises fundamental questions about the integrity, honesty and openness of research anywhere at the University of California.”
The big question, of course, is how scientists could do this research openly without becoming targets of ALF and groups of its ilk. Are the members of the public who are clamoring for full disclosure here willing to take the necessary steps to protect the researchers from harm?
If they think the corporate funder is a problem, are they willing to help locate “cleaner” sources of funding for the research?
Or would this research be a non-starter for the public anyway? And if that’s the case, what does that tell us about what the public thinks science is good for, or who the public thinks deserves to benefit from scientific research?
Edythe London is short on public support because the public is ambivalent — and this ambivalence goes much further than the question of animal use in research.