Adventures in Ethics and Science

An article in the Wall Street Journal notes the collision between researchers’ interests in personal safety and the public’s right to know how its money is being spent — specifically, when that money funds research that involves animals:

The University of California was sued last summer by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a group that advocates eliminating the use of animals in research, to obtain records involving experiments. In its complaint, the group said “only through access to the records…can it be determined how public funds are being spent and how animals are being treated.”

The university argued to keep the records private, saying in court documents that the request came amid “a rising wave of harassment, threats and criminal violence perpetrated by extremist organizations.”

The violence against researchers includes an incident a year ago in which protesters burst into a University of California, Santa Cruz, scientist’s home during a child’s birthday party. In another incident in August, a UC Santa Cruz biologist and his family fled from a second-floor window when his house filled with smoke from a firebomb.

Both the physicians group and PETA say they don’t condone violence.

Christopher Patti, a lawyer for the University of California system, says the university used to liberally disclose details until it saw information repeatedly used to target researchers. “We’ve tried to adjust our practices to balance safety and public disclosure,” he says.

State Superior Court Judge Frank Roesch ruled the University of California records should be released, but allowed them to be heavily redacted. Researchers’ names, laboratory floor plans and other information were blacked out.

Though the Physicians Committee technically won the suit — the university agreed to cover some legal fees — it said the redacted documents were unusable. Violent acts against researchers are extremely rare, says Dan Kinburn, the group’s general counsel. “The fact that a few crazy people might do criminal things shouldn’t interfere with the rights of the overwhelming law-abiding majority.”

First, it’s important to recognize that there are legitimate interests on both sides.

Scientists whose research is supported by public funds are accountable to the public — to do the research they were funded to do, to report the results of that research so that the knowledge generated benefits the public, and to conduct research that abides by the prevailing rules and regulations, including rules and regulations for animal care and use. The public has an interest in seeing that public funds are not misspent. And, the public has an expressed interest (enshrined in laws like the Animal Welfare Act) in seeing that animals are not treated inhumanely.

But scientists, who are working very hard to create a reliable body of knowledge and are working to do so in a way that conforms to the prevailing rules and regulations, have an interest in living their lives free from threats to their safety or the safety of their loved ones. That scientists are accountable to the public does not mean that their protocols are subject to the approval of any random member of the public. There are established mechanisms by which scientists demonstrate that they are taking proper care to treat the animals used in their research humanely, reducing the number of animals used as much as possible while still generating meaningful data, replacing animals in experiments where possible, and refining experimental techniques to minimize animal distress and discomfort. The most immediate mechanism is the researcher’s interaction with the IACUC (institutional animal care and use committee), a body set up to include not only a non-scientist member but also a member unaffiliated with the institution who represents the interests of the public.

In other words, there are regulations in place and there are mechanisms to ensure that scientific research abides by those regulations. If members of the public are concerned that scientists aren’t following the rules, they should be vocal in their support of the mechanisms that exist to make sure the rules are followed. If they believe that these mechanisms are insufficient, they should lobby for better mechanisms (at which point, they should be prepared to present a compelling argument as to why the existing mechanisms are not enough). If they believe the prevailing rules are too lax, they should lobby their lawmakers to change those rules (while, of course, respecting the rights of scientists and other members of the public who enjoy the benefits of scientific research to lobby their lawmakers). None of these strategies for protecting the public’s interests requires violence or harassment.

Nor, as far as I can tell, does any of them require that members of the public be provided with detailed information about which researchers are working with which animals, about where their labs or the animal care facilities are located, nor about researchers’ home addresses. Rest assured, the IACUC has the relevant information (in part so that they can contact researchers in case of emergency and make arrangements for proper animal care should there be a physical plant crisis), and the federal agencies that oversee animal use in research do, too.

So, I can’t help but wonder why PETA and PCRM want documents with details like researchers’ names and laboratory floor plans. But, given that the release of documents that included such information led to the use of such information to target researchers with harassment, it makes complete sense that universities would redact this information.

It seems to me that if animal rights groups like PETA and PCRM feel they have an interest in (or a right to) such information, they need to explain why, in detail. How exactly do they plan to use such information? What are they unable to do in the absence of this information? Does their interest in conducting whatever activities they might want to conduct with this information outweigh a researchers’ interest in not finding a firebomb on her front step?

Indeed, if it’s the case that PETA and PCRM are opposed to violence directed against researchers, then it seems to me that, in the interests of furthering their own arguments, they have a duty to protect researchers from such violence. Animal rights groups who decry violence against researchers should put their money where their mouth is and be on the front lines protecting researchers from attacks whether in their labs, at their homes, or in the community.

Once we see PETA and PCRM organizing the equivalent of clinic escorts to protect researchers from attacks, then I might believe that they really view violence against researchers as a bad thing and are confident they can make their case on the merits. In the meantime, given that there are mechanisms by which researchers must communicate to committees and agencies acting on the behalf of the public, individual requests for detailed information can’t be presumed to outweigh the law-abiding scientist’s interest in not being harmed.

Comments

  1. #1 S. Rivlin
    February 27, 2009

    Janet,

    While I fully agree with your post and its message, we have among us, unfortunately, researchers who perform animal experimentation that are not approved by the IACUC. Frequently, such experiments are done by the very researchers who would not back off from fabricating or falsifying data. While one could assume that these researchers are a minority, we have no idea how prevalent the practice is, just as we do not really know the extent of scientific misconduct, of which IACUC-less animal experimentation is a part of.

  2. #2 Clinton
    February 27, 2009

    So the solution to this is to turn all the researchers at an institution over to the PETA wackanut terrorists, S. Rivlin? Really?

  3. #3 Paul Browne
    February 28, 2009

    A couple of points, firstly coming from the UK as I do I wonder if one of the problems with the regulation of animal research in the USA is that it is too fragmented, with a lot of responsibility devolved to local level. While the overwhelming majority of IACUCs take their responsibilities seriously I wonder if there are enough checks in place to make sure that they all meet acceptable standards (and Orac mentioned a couple of dubious cases on his blog recently), especially where work on animals not covered by the animal welfare act is concerned. I know this might not be popular but I think that it would be good to extend the AWA to cover all vertebrate species (and some non-vertebrates such as cephalopods) and increase federal guidance to and oversight of IACUCs.

    I really doubt that there are many IACUC-less studies being undertaken, for a start how would anyone get them published in any halfway decent journal.

    Janet is right about asking what AR organizations want with personal information, information that has no bearing on the science of the work done. I think that it is completely acceptable to keep it confidential, just as I would for doctors who perform abortions and other professionals in jobs that risk attack by extremists.

    Secondly scientists do have a duty to explain their work to the public, especially where controversial research involving non-human primate or human embryonic stem cells is concerned. Pulling up the drawbridge won’t help (for long) and will only serve to help anti-vivisectionists to convince more of the public that the scientists are hiding something. The best response to allegations is to confront them head on and be open with the press. The Oregon National Primate Research Centre http://www.ohsu.edu/onprc/ provides a pretty good model that other institutes would do well to follow.

    I don’t believe that responsibility should rest with the scientists doing the animal research alone. Most medical researchers don’t work with animals themselves, even if their research depends on animal research done by others, and they too should be more willing to speak up for the work done by their colleagues. This is especially true when animal researchers are targeted by extremists, in California most of the scientists who who have been targeted by extremists have defended their work to the press, but there hasn’t been a lot of obvious support from their colleagues. The lesson from the Pro-Test march in Oxford 3 years ago was that when researchers (and students) stand up for animal research and researchers the impact on the debate is huge. I know that scientists who haven’t yet been targeted are not keen to put their heads above the parapet, but with a little organization and a little solidarity it can be done with minimal risk.

  4. #4 MarkH
    February 28, 2009

    What’s a little upsetting about this article is the author fails to realize that PETA and the “physicians committee” (which has almost no physicians) are the same group. All of these complaints from “animal rights” groups are bogus. They aren’t interested in disclosure of information. They are involved in a campaign of harassment to stop all research, not to protect animals currently being studied.

    One of the ways they accomplish this is by creating this atmosphere of punitive disclosure to make animal research that much more onerous, and yes, it is also to gain information to be used to terrorize researchers. PETA by day, ALF by night.

    The author really failed to realize the links between these groups, and their relationship with terrorist groups like ALF that use this information to firebomb researchers homes, labs and terrorize researchers and their families.

  5. #5 S. Rivlin
    February 28, 2009

    Clinton,

    Did I advocate turning researchers to PETA? Let me repeat, there are scientists among us who are performing animal experimentation that is either not approved by IACUC or approved, but modified significantly after the approval. And yes, Paul Browne, these IACUC-less studies are being published in half-decent scientific journals that PETA read and act upon.

    Let me tell here a real story that occured in my institute.
    In the lab accross from mine, an NIH-funded scientist and his group were performing experiments on wound healing using rabbits. Rabbits ears are suitable for such a study since they are large, allowing an accurate measuremnt of the wound area and its response to treatment. Moreover, one ear can be used as control to the treatment that is applied to the other ear. The protocol for creating the wound, of course, call for general anesthesia and analgesic treatment post anesthesia. Rabbits were brought into the lab several mornings during the week to creat the wound and one could hear the cries of the rabbits even behind the closed doors. I approached the PI of the study and voiced my concern regarding what appeared to me to be a reaction by the rabbits to great pain. He assured me that the animals are under general anesthesia and do not feel any pain. Nevertheless, after two more times when those horrible cries crossed the closed doors and reached my ears, I picked up the phone and called the head veterinarian of our animal care facility, who’s also a member of the IACUC, and voiced to him my concern about the pain the rabbits next door are exposed to. Five minutes after my phone call, the vet showed up in my office. He told me that the IACUC had major concerns regarding the level of pain the injury to the ear cause, but the study was approved after the PI assured them that all animals will be put under general anesthesia and will receive analgesic treatment post injury. He asked me if would be willing to call him immediately if and when I hear those rabbits cries again. Of course I agreed and did call him the next time I heard them. Eventually, it was found that the anesthesia provided was too light (as part of an effort to save time by the experimenters). As a reasult said PI and his group were put on probation and they were instructed to perform all the injury experiments within the confines of animal care facility under close supervision by the animal care staff, rather than moving the animals to the lab where they did the experiments before.

    My point is,there is always someone among us who knows when things are not kosher and unless this someone blows the whistle, these things will continue to occure. It is easy to simply dismiss our responsibility of assuring that our colleagues performing their experiments they way they should by claiming that the protocol was approved by the IACUC. Eventually, this is not enough. If we will not police ourselves, and to the best of my knowledge we do not, there will be others who will demand to do it for us. Those others may not resort to violent actions like PETA, but they could make our lives as researchers much more difficult.

  6. #6 Paul Browne
    February 28, 2009

    Well Solomon the case you describe is one of a scientist not keeping to an IACUC protocol rather than performing a procedure that was never approved in the first place. What you did was exactly what you should have done, and the IACUC responded as I’d expect them to. While I’m arguing for is regulation to be put in place to make sure that all IACUCs respond so well, in the end the onus is on scientists and other lab workers to make sure that the regulations are being followed. It’s clearly far bettter that these problems are udentified and resolved early, rather than being found in an inspection or by PeTA infiltrators.

    Actually this issue came up in a discussion on Dr. Isis’s blog a few weeks ago, where there was a bit of a debate on whether you should always stick to the IACUC approved protocols.

    http://scienceblogs.com/isisthescientist/2009/02/the_responsibility_of_junior_s.php

  7. #7 Clinton
    February 28, 2009

    Nicely done S.Rivlin. Do you see how your followup is an emphatic testimony to how the system works to correct bad actions / bad actors whereas your first comment implied that PETALF’s demands are necessary for oversight?

  8. #8 S. Rivlin
    February 28, 2009

    Paul,

    I do know about a case in which a study was performed using an IACUC-less protocol. Although the study has been highlighted by PETA and there is no mention there that the experiments were not approved by the IACUC, I know for a fact that this study was done without such approval, even when in the paper the authors claim that such approval was given. I have reported the problem to the university administration and to a local TV reporter, but no action was ever taken by either.
    http://blog.peta.org/archives/2008/09/vivisector_of_t_8.php

    Clinton,

    Unfortunately, many among us prefer to turn away and do not report such cases. Many are afraid to get involved.

  9. #9 SimonG
    February 28, 2009

    I really detest a lot of animal rights protesters. Living in a democracy means you’ve got a right for your voice to be heard, but it doesn’t mean you necessarily get your way.

    Even if PETA and its ilk don’t intend to directly misuse the information they request, the very act of requesting it, letting researchers know that people have it, is intimidating.

  10. #10 Lab Lemming
    March 2, 2009
  11. #11 Yancey
    March 2, 2009

    Since PETA and PCRM obtain a public benefit, i.e. avoidance of corporate taxes and local property taxes and sales taxes, are we entitled to have the home addresses of all their employees? Really, what’s the harm?

  12. #12 Yancey
    March 2, 2009

    Since PETA and PCRM obtain a public benefit, i.e. avoidance of corporate taxes and local property taxes and sales taxes, are we entitled to have the home addresses of all their employees? Really, what’s the harm?

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