An Open Letter to OSU

Addressing the Board of Oklahoma State University
To Whom it May Concern,
It has recently come to my attention that the president of Oklahoma State University, Dr. Hargis, has canceled a National Institute of Health-approved project on pathogen testing in primates, presumably caving in to vocal minority pressure concerning the use of animals in research. Despite the full approval of veterinary boards, the steps taken to maximize animal welfare, and the full backing of the National Institute of Health, the project was canceled in an abrupt and seemingly-arbitrary manner.
I personally find this sudden reversal of an approved study surprising. The primate facilities at OSU are well known, particularly their baboon facility, which the study intended to utilize. The baboon research facilities have previously yielded many high-impact papers in areas such as pathology, and results from these studies have been and are currently being taken into account in the search for treatments for human disease. The study which was itself canceled is one that could provide key understanding to the development and propagation of highly dangerous diseases such an anthrax, and thus which could provide results with a highly important impact on human health. Given the excellent animal welfare rules in place at OSU, the history of the baboon program, and the valuable research that has emerged from the university on these topics, it is therefore concerning that the president of OSU have given in to personal pressures and opinions in halting the study.
I would also like to point out that the cancellation of this study sets a disturbing precedent for animal research programs in place at OSU as well as at other universities. It is very worrying that the president of a public university should cancel a government-funded research study due to personal concerns. This precedent could place the research of other investigators at OSU and at other schools in jeopardy, potentially endangering studies that are essential to the understanding of human and animal health and disease.
I therefore would call upon you to urge Dr. Hargis to reconsider his ban on this government-approved study, and not to cave to the pressure of a vocal few which would attempt to halt many animal studies necessary for the understanding of animal and human disease. It is imperative that studies to improve human and animal survival and quality of life go forward, and in the past, OSU has ensured that these studies proceed with maximum quality control and concern for animal welfare. Please do not jeopardize the excellent research reputation of OSU by allowing the personal concerns of a vocal minority to prevent necessary and appropriately performed research.
Thank you very much for your time and attention.
Scicurious
For more coverage of this issue, see Drugmonkey and the ever-perspicacious erv. Additional coverage and addresses of the board (please write!) at Speaking of Research.

12 Responses

  1. It’s always a bit scary when minorities hinder perfectly good research projects like this one.
    If the animals are well cared for and they’re not “tortured” as some PETA-ish groups suggest, then there’s absolutely no ethical problems about using animals as human analogs.
    I can only hope that the collective voice of scientists will overthrow the decision. :S

  2. Threats to academically-sound research and academic freedom come in many forms. We have witnessed situations where people questioned the value and “worthwhile” nature of research programs, usually because of a political, ethical or moral bias. We have all watched while religious zealots challenged NIH-funded public health studies that focused on ethic or sexual minorities or other “at risk” groups. We’ve seen others directly challenge controlled studies to determine if needle exchange programs actually reduce morbidity amongst people dependent upon drugs. Yet others oppose research involving embryonic stem cell lines and did a pretty good job of squelching that research for a long time. Finally, Dr. Freeride recently remarked on a circumstance where a religious official challenged a university over a study involving sexual behaviors in college women because of his objections to sex toys.
    Now, the situation at OSU is receiving widespread attention. Sadly, this is not the first time that a circumstance like this has occurred; rather, it’s one of the first times that it has received this level of coverage. I can assure you that there are other investigators around the country who have suffered similar circumstances.
    Others have commented elsewhere to the effect that the fact that the NIH and IACUC had both approved this study is irrelevant to whether the University should execute the study. I disagree with that conclusion, but even if it held any merit, there is still a deeper issue. Scientists and researchers are hired to universities to engage in research ventures that sometimes involve controversy. But the principal of academic freedom should always be squarely in our consideration of whether a project should go forwards. Every time an intellectually and academically honest project is canceled due to political considerations, the entire academic enterprise is weakened.
    If we all speak up in a reasoned and straightforward manner, there is hope that we can overcome this insult to academic freedom and (incidentally) to research involving animals.

  3. why not use people as test subjects?

  4. Actually, glza, many scientific studies do use human subjects, when the questions of the study can be best answered by the study of humans and when the risk to the subjects can be managed and understood by the participants. For example, I described multiple studies in my previous post that do involve human subjects (studies of the efficacy of needle exchange programs, studies of the influence of interventions on HIV infection rates in at risk populations, etc.). For both scientific and ethical reasons, the OSU studies could not use human subjects.
    At most major research universities, the MAJORITY of scientific studies do not use living non-human animals: they involve either humans, non-living (in vitro) preparations or no biological substrate at all. But when an in vivo animal preparation is required, it is used in accordance with proper attention to animal welfare and regulations.

  5. I believe that glza was asking why not use human subjects for this project? I imagine that s/he is aware that human subjects are used for many experiments.
    The fact is that it would be unethical to use humans for this experiment and for similar reasons it is also unethical to use baboons.

  6. “For both scientific and ethical reasons, the OSU studies could not use human subjects.”
    Elaborate, David! This point goes to the heart “of the personal concerns of [the] vocal minority,” right? I ask because I have no idea what the vocal minority is arguing. The Open Letter fails to acknowledge, much less address, counterarguments.

  7. Where, Giza, are your criteria for determining that it is unethical to use baboons for these studies? Ethics are a series of moral judgments by an individual. Was the use of the baboon heart for transplant to Baby Faye unethical (you may be too young to remember that)? Is it unethical to use a pig heart valve for replacement of a damaged valve in man? Is it unethical to have used 180,000 monkeys to develop a polio vaccine that has nearly eliminated this dread disease in the world? Is it unethical to use non-human animal derived surgical suture materials in humans and animals? What about sheep blood agar plates to culture pathogenic agents? I cannot even imagine where you can find your ethical place in this whole realm nor can I accept your statement of condemnation of the use of baboons on “unethical” grounds.
    Most of the individuals who post in support the OSU president’s position can be placed into the group defined by Martin Luther King when he said “Nothing in this world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity”.

  8. well, i for one think that ratdoc should read who wrote what, because all i asked was why not use human subjects.
    i think ratdoc meant edward. but i guess i can agree with edward, as he said it would be unethical to use humans OR baboons for this.
    i really don’t have any say in anything scientific, though so my opinion is just of your average “experimenting-on-anything-that-can-feel-pain-is-wrong” type. i don’t think edward is with me on that one.
    now that i’ve been outed, lemme get to what my question really meant:
    what makes it ethical to experiment on something not-human when the same experiment is unethical to perform on humans? my own course of thought is based on the concept of suffering and assuming that other animals besides humans are capable of experiencing suffering and i understand that many people don’t want to assume such things. i feel that’s quite convenient. i started reading some peter singer book (boo, i know) but got bored and stopped :-O
    i understand that vivisection was necessary to get us to where we are today, but i couldn’t live with myself knowing that because of my decision or complicity these creatures are being deprived of freedom and health in order to develop cosmetics, chemicals, and medicines. i can understand why the president made his decision.
    i just wish there were some way to develop these things without causing discomfort to other, presumably sentient creatures. does this make me sincerely ignorant and conscientiously stupid?
    also, because of these medicines, we have now overpopulated the earth and are causing untold havoc on the sustainability of the planet. the world’s poor are the ones bearing the brunt of our excess, so i guess academia and megacorps don’t really care.
    yeah, i’m one of THOSE too…

  9. Oklahoma State University or the University of Oklahoma. Is the college named correct?

  10. Oklahoma State University or the University of Oklahoma. Is the college named correct?

  11. Sci – thanks for writing this.
    @9 The canceled project is at Oklahoma State University (OSU).
    The explanation given by OSU continues to evolve.
    http://speakingofresearch.com/2009/12/07/osu-president-yet-to-explain-decision-to-cancel-primate-project/

  12. Sci – thank you for writing this.
    @9 – it is Oklahoma State University (OSU).

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