In this issue

Speak up for nonhuman animal research

Research with nonhuman animals is a complicated and nuanced issue; it is the responsibility of members of the scientific community to educate others about this issue.

By Sangeeta Panicker, PhD

About four years ago, Allyson Bennett, PhD, associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and former chair and continuing member of the APA Committee on Animal Research and Ethics, urged psychologists to speak up in support of nonhuman animal research. The impetus for her call in the APA Science Directorate newsletter, Psychological Science Agenda, was a newly released report from the Institute of Medicine (IOM), titled “Chimpanzees in Biomedical and Behavioral Research: Assessing the Necessity.” Her appeal was not merely a reaction to the report; rather she used it as an opportunity to highlight our responsibilities as stewards of ethically sound and scientifically valid research with nonhuman animals that is in the public’s interest.

As described below, the lasting impact of the IOM report on policies and regulations related to research with chimpanzees, and the relevance of other events that unfolded in the ensuing years concerning research with other nonhuman primates (NHP), only serve to emphasize the urgent need for psychologists to heed Bennett’s call and speak up in support of research with nonhuman animals.

NIH-supported Research With Chimpanzees

Since 2008, there had been numerous unsuccessful legislative attempts to curb research with NHPs (Great Ape Protection Act, 2008, 2009, 2010; Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act, 2011). All of these efforts had been spearheaded by so-called “animal welfare/protection” groups, including The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. Around the same time, in December 2010, at the direction of some members of Congress, National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins, MD, PhD, commissioned the IOM to conduct a study of the current and future need for chimpanzees in biomedical research.

The IOM panel, which issued its report in December 2011, concluded that most current use of chimpanzees in biomedical research is unnecessary. The report also noted that some areas of research might continue to require the use of chimpanzees, including “noninvasive studies of social and behavioral factors that affect the development, prevention, or treatment of disease” and recommended a set of principles and criteria that should guide the use of chimpanzees in allowable noninvasive research.

Collins accepted the IOM recommendations and, in February 2012, charged a Working Group on the Use of Chimpanzees in NIH-supported Research with developing a plan to implement the IOM recommendations. NIH also issued an interim policy that it would not fund any new or other competing grants for research with chimpanzees until the working group had completed its charge.

The NIH working group presented its recommendations to the NIH Council of Councils in January 2013. NIH then issued a request for information (RFI) seeking public comment on the working group’s recommendations. After considering public comments, in June 2013, NIH announced that it had accepted most of the recommendations of the working group, including:

  • Retirement of all NIH-owned or supported chimpanzees from research, with the exception of 50 chimpanzees that would be retained for future biomedical research on new, emerging, or reemerging diseases.
  • Creation of a Chimpanzee Research Use Panel (CRUP) charged with reviewing every NIH grant application for research with chimpanzees, after it has been reviewed and scored by a scientific review group, to determine if it is consistent with the IOM principles and criteria.

However, certain observational or non-interventional research involving chimpanzees and certain research involving biomaterials would be exempt from the CRUP’s consideration. The CRUP represents an entirely new mechanism for evaluation of scientific proposals to NIH. Its current membership includes a nurse-researcher, physician-researcher, minister, patient advocate, veterinarian, field anthropologist, learning disabilities educator, biostatistician and political scientist.

In June 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) classified captive chimpanzees as endangered.  Subsequently, in November 2015, Collins issued a statement that NIH would no longer support biomedical research with chimpanzees. Thus, the 50 remaining chimpanzees also would be retired from biomedical research. The FWS action was a result of a petition spearheaded by HSUS. Finally, in February 2016, NIH issued a notice clarifying that the types of research with chimpanzees that were still permitted, including visual observation, non-invasive behavioral studies aimed at improving the establishment and maintenance of social groups and environmental enrichment to enhance psychological well-being. Under these new rules the fate of much cognitive research and studies that involve neuroimaging is unclear.

Closure of the NICHD Laboratory of Comparative Ethology
Taking advantage of the Freedom of Information Act and state sunshine laws, in mid-2014, PETA initiated an aggressive campaign targeting research conducted by APA member Stephen Suomi, PhD, at the National Institute of Child Health and Development (NICHD) Laboratory of Comparative Ethology (LCE). In concert with its continuing media campaign, in December 2014, PETA recruited its allies in Congress to send a letter to NIH, requesting Collins to investigate the research being conducted at the LCE.

APA, the American Society of Primatologists (PDF, 76KB) and the Society for Neuroscience wrote letters in support of Suomi, highlighting the contributions of his research in understanding gene-environment interactions and their impact on development. APA also co-sponsored a Congressional briefing addressing the role of basic research with nonhuman animals within the larger context of applied, clinical and translational research.

Despite an NIH investigation that revealed no irregularities in the research conducted by Suomi and his colleagues, in November 2015, PETA intensified its campaign and sent letters to residents living in the same neighborhoods as both Suomi and Collins claiming that one of their neighbors was responsible for animal abuse in a government laboratory. Within a month, in December 2015, NIH announced the phased closure of the LCE over the coming years. The NIH statement emphasized that the closure was due to financial constraints and changes in programmatic priorities and not in response to the PETA-led campaign to terminate Suomi’s research program.

Regardless of the NIH statement about the reasons for shutting down an NIH laboratory, APA was concerned about the precedent that was set by the announced closing of the LCE due to political pressures targeting a single research program. Thus, APA led an effort to meet with Collins to discuss the perceived lack of NIH support for nonhuman animal research. Representatives from APA and eight other organizations met with Collins in early March 2016. At the meeting, Collins reaffirmed NIH support for NHP research and nonhuman animal research in general and exhorted scientific societies and researchers to become more actively engaged in public outreach so that the lay public is not misled by myths and misinformation promulgated by anti-animal research groups.

Regardless of one’s personal stance on research with NHPs, what these two cases illustrate is that in the absence of an informed citizenry, science policy can—and will—be shaped by entities with a specific mission and agenda. Research with nonhuman animals is a complicated and nuanced issue, and it is the responsibility of every member of the scientific community to educate others—including legislators, regulators, fellow psychologists, colleagues, students and the general public—about this important issue. It is also our obligation to be engaged scientist-citizens and participate in the policymaking process to ensure that research regulations are evidence based.