Most scientists and science journalists argue vehemently for basic research - and even more taxpayer money should be devoted to it, they say.   Politicians usually disagree and feel like taxpayer-funded research should have a goal or at least a defined result in its framework.

Professor Patrick Bateson, ethologist at Cambridge University and president of the Zoological Society of London, is a surprising ally with conservatives who feel only practical science should be funded.   He led a recent review and concluded that the justification for some projects carried out over the decade they analyzed was "inadequate" or "insufficient" - they recommended that future projects with nonhuman primates demonstrate medical or social benefits or not be funded.  In other words, there should have been less basic research.   Conservatives and progressive animal-rights activists make strange bedfellows but they may have common ground here.

And they may have a common enemy in the science world.   Demanding a tangible benefit measured against ethical concerns is what set off the worldwide human embryonic stem cell controversy - scientists did not feel like basic research should be filtered through a social prism.   Science is once again being criticized, but this time by progressives and they're using a clever mechanism that will likely appeal to practical conservatives - namely that quite a bit of it is a waste of money.

A definition of 'social' benefit is going to be too broad.   Alok Jha of the Guardian attended a lunch meeting with Bateson and he noted that they were scientists in  the fields of neurobiology, neurology, psychology, zoology, reproductive biology and translational research(1), experts all, but not without their own bias - four of the panel members are staunchly against animal testing regardless of benefit.   And a few are in the psychology field - will that be in the umbrella of social benefit, since people are hard enough to figure out and monkeys are impossible?

Bateson said, "We did find a minority of cases, about 9% of them, that the justification of the projects was inadequate or insufficient.   These projects were unlikely to be beneficial and the claims made for them were implausible. In my view, funding of work on nonhuman primates should not be continued if no effort has been made to demonstrate, plausibly, the potential medical and social benefits of the work."

Imagine if such a sweeping proclamation were made about research in the U.S.?   When Sarah Palin criticized American funding of research on fruit flies in France because it had no immediate medical or social benefit to Americans, she was excoriated by the science community.  Palin is an easy target, a persistent rumor was that she once overturned science by claiming man and dinosaurs walked together, but will that same level of vitriol be leveled against progressive activists?  It will be by me but I am often alone in my willingness to criticize all political stripes.

The essential question remains, for those who agree with the conclusion, why should monkeys have a different metric for justification than any basic research study?  While the similarities between humans and primate cousins may seem close to people who do not understand science, the gulf is really quite large biologically yet we can't experiment on humans so we have to use the closest available.  

Personal bias of the committee aside the first problem with this kind of review is that it can't even be a systematic review, there are too many differences in the studies, but this review will still be called a 'study' and in the vernacular that carries a higher standard for science.  That means researchers using animals will now spend their time explaining why they are not lumped in with the 9 percent that had no 'value' to a committee.  The fight over the benefit of basic research will go on because most people do not understand its value.   

The review has statements like "The suffering of every individual matters. A  problem arises when attempting to equate a small number of animals suffering a lot versus a large number suffering a little because the numbers of animals used is not commensurate with the degree of suffering that each individual suffers. A mathematical combination of the two dimensions is impossible. "

Indeed it is but therein lies the problem; for a study like this to be invalidated by researchers, they simply have to disagree.   Biologists might argue that reproductive biology experiments as part of training for researchers have benefit, even if this committee disagrees.

Detractors of Oklahoma Senator Dr. Tom Coburn's report on waste and non-science funding by the NSF noted that some waste was going to happen and his definition of benefit was not germane to practicing scientists - in that light, this new report is not much help to UK researchers and really hurts American ones.  America would be over the moon with joy if 91% of studies had benefit to society but it's not even close to that.   If this committee were doing the analysis, science funding would be cut in half.  

Michelle Thew, chief executive of the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection, told Jha the Bateson report was "a chilling insight into primate research in the UK. It is also a shocking admission of failure. Regulations designed to protect primates in research are demonstratively not working."

So while you and I might be ecstatic about only 9% waste, more aggressive animal rights groups think it is still far too much.    Like all political issues, this has no easy answer and science will once again be caught in the crossfire between progressives and conservatives with their own agendas, and using science as a weapon in the culture war.

Reference: Review of Research  Using Non-Human Primates - Medical Research Council


(1) Panel members: aside from Bateson, who has has edited 15 books and chaired 
two reports on aspects of animal welfare, the panel includes

- Dr Heidi Johansen-Berg, Wellcome Trust Senior Research Fellow and Reader in Clinical Neurology at the Universityof Oxford

- Prof. Derek K Jones PhD, MRI physicist and Director of CUBRIC (Cardiff University Brain Research Imaging Centre, School of Psychology, Cardiff University

- Prof. Eric Barrington (Barry) Keverne, a behavioural neuroscientist

- Prof. Paul Matthews is Professor of Clinical NeurosciencesatImperialCollegeLondon and Vice-PresidentforImaginginGlaxoSmithKline

- Professor Arthur David Milner , Emeritus Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Durham

- Dr Mark Prescott leads the animal welfare and peer review programs at the National Centre for the Replacement,RefnementandReductionofAnimals in Research (NC3Rs)

- Dr Ian Ragan PhD is a neuropharmacologist and an  independent consultant in the biomedical sector who also Project Coordinator for the  EuropeanPartnershipforAlternativestoAnimal Testing, and a board member of the NC3Rs

- Professor Robin Shattock is Professor of Cellular Molecular Infection in the Department and Molecular Medicine, St George’s Hospital MedicalSchool,UniversityofLondon

- Professor Jerome (Jerry) Strauss III MD, PhD Jerry Strauss is Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Dean of the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine and ExecutiveVice President for Medical Affairsof theVCUHealthSystem and serves on the External AdvisoryBoard of the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center.

- Heather Peck was Deputy Director at the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs with particular responsibility for animal welfare policies up to March 2008.