Ethical breaches in animal research

A story in the Sacramento Bee this past weekend told the story of a biomedical researcher at the University of California-Davis whose NIH-funded research has been stopped by campus administration over a pattern of serious and recurring ethical breaches. The paper lists a range of charges made against the researcher, all leading to the suspension of his research activities. Apparently, live mouse pups were placed into a sealed bag, where they would have suffocated had they not been found. Drugs past their expiration dates were used in animals. Lab records were erroneous or incomplete. Mice were bred without approval and were housed in over-crowded conditions, and the lab used inappropriate methods for anesthesia and analgesia.

I do not know the researcher involved, nor do I have any direct insight into the circumstances of this case. If the allegations are wrong, I look forward to a public statement to that effect by the University. But if they are true, they represent a rare but seriously damaging breach in public confidence in science.

All outward signs are that this researcher’s scientific studies had the potential to be exceptional. His work was “focused [o]n restoring hearing in the deaf”, and it was supported by multiple NIH grants. Obtaining a grant from the NIH to support a project involves a very rigorous process of scientific review, underscoring the importance of his work. Yet, none of the scientific value of the work makes the pattern of alleged behavior acceptable, and in fact, conducting research in a manner that threatens or directly harms animal welfare risks the basic value of the work itself. Additionally, the apparently shoddy laboratory practices reported (e.g., using drugs that had expired and potentially would not perform as required) demonstrate a lack of care for rigorous research standards and draw into question the basic value of the scientific discoveries made.

If this – or any other – researcher engages in behavior like this, their research should be stopped, and yes, their grants should be returned to the NIH. The Sac Bee reports that the University is attempting to keep these grants by transferring them to the supervision of another faculty member, but this is just a shell game that will not really address the underlying harm done to animals and to the broader community of animal research by this event.

Actions like this bias public attention by raising the specter of research misconduct and ethical breaches by animal researchers. However, the fact remains that these events are exceedingly rare. A University the size of UC-Davis has hundreds if not thousands of persons involved in animal research, and this laboratory is only one. No one tells the story about all the others who do the right thing every single day because they value animal welfare and work hard to preserve it. The Humane Society of the United States, and other animal rights groups, are foaming at the mouth to scream about non-compliances and malign all researchers for rare events, all while they ignore the masses of scientists who fulfill both the letter and spirit of the animal welfare regulations and laws. Their story is not only terribly quiet, it’s also overridden by stories like the one told by the Sac Bee.

Researchers who fail to meet social expectations harm us all, and it has to stop.

People ask me all the time: what can I do to support animal research? My answer is always the same: make scientific discoveries, but never trample on the process that is in place to ensure animal welfare. Follow the rules, cooperate with the veterinarians and IACUC and maintain an open and honest animal research program. It only makes scientific sense to do so.

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