Saturday, December 3, 2011

Feds to send old chimps back into research, despite public disapproval?

The new DVD for the movie Rise of the Planet of the Apes is coming out at an opportune moment. Caesar, I feel your anger and I know, now, why the apes followed your revolution. Humans, and most especially the scientists and caregivers charged with your welfare, betrayed you.

We may be witnessing that betrayal, now, in real life, by the scientists at the National Institutes of Health and the Texas Biomedical Research Institute.

As documented by Brandon Keim in his article in Wired (NIH Accused of Dishonesty over Chimp Research Plans), NIH approved a grant to Texas Biomedical that would fund the re-introduction of tired, old, retired chimpanzees to active research. They did this even while they were assuring a gullible public (like me) that they would seriously listen to days of testimony, read reams of comments, and consider the recommendations of a special panel set up by the Institute of Medicine. (A panel, by the way, that was explicitedly directed to ignore the matter of ethics -- reflecting a continual failing at NIH, perhaps?)

This photo by Borderzine shows Juan, one of the chimps going back into research, hiding from people at his current Alamogordo facility. 
The IOM panel is due to issue its recommendations this month, but NIH approved Texas Biomedical's $19 million proposal in September. Did NIH always plan to ignore the panel's recommendation? Or did they know ahead of time what the recommendations would be? Or is it another stupid blunder by this error-prone agency?

This cynical move by a tone-deaf NIH has serious implications for the chimpanzees, but also for the federal government and, most especially, for the public's growing mistrust of federal science. Thinking people know that Climategate is a fraud. Solyndra was a mistake. But this deliberate betrayal of the public confidence, if the allegations are true, is an outrage. If the facts stand, I believe the people at NIH are helping to dig the ever-deeper grave for publicly funded science.

I have asked for a meeting with my congressional representative, Rep. Chris Van Hollen, who was an early co-sponsor of the Great Ape Protection Act. I have asked for help from Sen. Barbara Mikulski, Sen. Daniel Inouye, and Rep. George Miller, all strong advocates for federal science. Congress, and the Obama White House, need to step in to cutoff this overreach by a federal agency running amok.

If reason, ethics, and a strong scientific consensus on stopping chimpanzee research don't sway these legislators, I will send each of them a Rise of the Planet of the Apes DVD. If I can't convince them, maybe Caesar can.

UPDATE, DEC 4: Marc Bekoff wrote Chimpanzees in Research: Lies, Lies, and More Lies, in his Psychology Today blog. (You won't be surprised to discover that I added my two cents worth in the comments section.)

Background
My blog on Aug 11, 2011, public meeting of federal panel considering the use of chimps in research
My blog on Aug 12, 2011, public meeting of federal panel considering the use of chimps in research

UPDATE, DEC 11: The federal advisory committee will release their recommendations on using chimpanzees in research on December 15. They will have a public briefing from 11am to noon. Given NIH's confident preparations to transfer the federally-owned chimps to Texas, I am not optimistic about these recommendations.

My efforts to convince legislators to stop the transfer? Sen. Mikulski's scheduler told me that a staff member would meet with me to discuss the issue, but that hasn't happened. Recognizing that staffers are very busy now, I sent him my idea on how we can stop the chimp transfer for 2012. We'll see. I got a form letter email from Rep. Van Hollen, telling me he is a co-sponsor of the Great Ape Protection Act. (Great, but that wasn't what I was asking and, besides, he sent that exact email to me earlier, when I did ask him to co-sponsor the bill.) Silence from Senator Inouye but, to be fair, he is chair of the Appropriations Committee and has a couple trillion issues on his plate right now. (NOTE TO SELF: Start lobbying now on fiscal year 2013 appropriations withholdings.)

UPDATE, Dec 13: I had the opportunity to discuss the federal chimpanzee research program with Senator Mikulski's staff today. I was very impressed with staff awareness of the issues, insightful questions, and thoughtful listening. I am confident that Senator Mikulski will receive a comprehensive and objective briefing, and I'm sure they will continue to follow NIH's actions affecting the fate of the Alamogordo chimpanzees.

UPDATE, Dec 15: Following the release of the Institute of Medicine Report that Assessess the Necessity of chimpanzees in research, the New York Times is reporting: "Dr. Collins confirmed that for now, the Alamogordo chimps would stay where they are."

(Amusing note: During the Q&A session at today's public briefing, I asked the committee chairman whether the Alamogordo chimp grant was covered by the report's reference to "new or renewed grants," and the chair responded that "we don't need to answer your question in the way that you asked." Well, harumph to you, too, sir.)

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