An Argument Against Basic Research? 9% Of Monkey Studies Have No Benefit
    By Hank Campbell | July 28th 2011 01:31 PM | 13 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    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.


    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
    Monkeys are not apes. Humans are apes. Reading this part either one way or the other is either scary or strange. The issue seems to be "nonhuman primates". That should include beings that are so damn close to us that stressing the "gulf" rather than the fact that they are basically us is almost racism. Maybe you can elaborate.
    I used human primates and non-human primates above.  In the review, the bulk of the non-human primates were marmosets and macaques - monkeys.  Are you contending monkeys are not non-human primates?   You seem to be trying to correct a distinction I did not make.
    OK, thanks for the clarification. I am sure when reading all the linked sources it is clear; just be aware of that your article mentions only "nonhuman primates" two or three times before getting to this bit. So, given that people usually confuse monkeys and apes and so on, the subsequent use of "monkeys" immediately followed by "primate cousins", well you get my drift.
    (Or wait a second - we agree that many of the great apes are among the non-human primates, right? What do you actually mean by "human primates"? Hominidae?)
    Well, I meant human primates - so not apes or other simians like monkeys.   Is there another human primate I am missing running around China?  If so, tell UN scientists because they only recognize human primates and 'others'.  If everyone except us is extinct in the Genus, why make me clarify all the way up to the Family?  Do you seriously not know what human primate means in relation to the rest of the order or are you messing around?
    I meant human primates - so not apes
    Sorry, but maybe I am not getting your messing around or something is entirely missing on my end. Which "human primates" (= humans, because the others went extinct) are not apes (and also simians) and where did you actually use "human primates"?
    All I meant to say is that the article talks almost entirely about "nonhuman primates", and then with only mentioning monkeys once as if in a joke (i.e. not explaining that the vast majority of test animals talked about here are little monkeys whose retinas are cut out) talks about a great chasm between us and our "closest cousins" (thus - at least in my misinterpretation it seems - indicating great pan-apes, which are also used quite a bit in psychological studies), and that threw me off quite a bit. Maybe I was the only one confused here.
    Gerhard Adam
    I think there is a different standard involved when it involves other living things.  If you want to hunt animals, there's a certain ethic and criteria involved in killing and eating/using the animals you hunt.  It wouldn't be reasonable to argue that one should use animals for target practice because it might be useful for future hunting experience.

    This becomes even more important depending on what's being tested, since the use of animals may represent biology that isn't necessarily relevant.  The use of drugs that may interact differently with animals, and the application of tests that may be affected by animals in pain or under stress that compromise experimental results.

    This isn't to say that all animal experimentation should be eliminated, but it should require a more rigorous standard than merely being "useful" (without any qualifications).
    Mundus vult decipi
    Right, and Bateson does not argue it when he talks about the research but the study itself is chock full of stepping stone statements to get testing banned, including referring to itself as a study even though it isn't even really a legitimate review.  He's pretty moderate, I am just always surprised when something a conservative group claims (basic research that is a waste of time should not be funded) is claimed by leftwing kookiness, it does not unleash the same youthful, indignant rage in the science blogosphere.
    Can I chip in, as the Director of Policy in the BUAV, described above as a "more aggressive" animal rights group (not a description I recognise!)? The point here is that the system isn't working as it's defined - the law in the UK states that experiments on animals should only be allowed if a cost-benefit analysis has shown the prospect of sufficient benefits to (in the regulator's view) counterbalance the suffering involved. The Bateson report shows that there is a significant number of experiments for which even the researcher struggles to sketch out a way that the results wold be useful at all, so the denominator in the cost-benefit equation is close to zero and the experiment shouldn't (under UK law) have been allowed.

    You might argue that the law should be changed to allow for intangible benefits from the advance of knowledge? But one doesn't have to be aggressive to feel that suffering shouldn't be inflicted on a general "it might advance knowledge, let's hope it'll be useful" basis, since that would open the door to pretty much any experiment. And that's certainly not what the law is supposed to allow. Does this mean that all basic research is a bad thing? Absolutely not - just that basic research that involves experiments on animals is difficult to justify even under the current law.

    We need a constructive dialog on this sort of thing, to get past the trench war thinking of "science vs animal rights". Thanks for discussing it, even if we disagree.

    As I mentioned, Bateson's commentary outside the report is quite constructive and I think most people generally agree - discrimination based on hard evidence is essential, not bans and certainly not a free-for-all.  No one wants a Harry Harlow running around doing unchecked experimenting on anything.   

    You say we need a constructive dialogue and yet the front page of the BUAV says it  "leads the campaign to end all animal testing" , which is not really a dialogue.   Even Ricky Gervais can't sell that gap between your words and the BUAV's marketing - since the UAV part means 'abolition of vivisection' it also isn't clear how you think there can be a dialogue and even in the context of this report, a representative of BUAV claiming these results are "a shocking admission of failure" will get you placed in the zealot camp - if Thew does not understand what basic research is and how terrific 91% results are in basic research if that number is accurate, it is best not to let her talk to anyone except the faithful inside your movement.   To the general public, her words are quite aggressive and designed to evoke an emotional response, not a constructive dialogue.    

    The context of the article is whether or not basic research should have a definable benefit - and who would approve that.   A definable benefit is the antithesis of basic research and, in the US, even modest recommendations to curb clear junk is met with scorn.
    We're in favor of ending animal testing, and obviously lots of scientists are not in favor of that any time soon, but that doesn't mean that a sensible dialog shouldn't be possible - we would see a significant reduction in testing as important progress, and most scientists would I think, like you, accept that animal testing for projects that are clearly junk is undesirable. The quote that you picked up relates specifically to UK law - that 9% is supposed not to happen in the UK, not because the projects looked promising and didn't work out, but because authors of the projects were unable to suggest ways that they *might* possibly have produced benefits, and UK law requires that a cost-benefit evaluation shows potential benefits - "hey, I don't know, but maybe it'll be useful somehow" isn't supposed to be good enough. Some might disagree with the UK law, but the point is that it's evidently not working properly in its own terms (I accept that this is of less interest outside the UK).

    The hardline position is that basic research by definition can't be expected to produce concrete benefits, because then it ain't basic. Nonetheless, it is also possible with basic research to suggest why it's useful (and funding would hardly be achievable without that) - my mathematics PhD wasn't going to cure cancer, but it was still designed to achieve something.

    Your comments suggest that you do accept the basic idea of the cost-benefit test? If so, there is scope for a dialog on how stringent that should be. We won't arrive at perfect agreement, but it's in the interest of the reputation of research that the most egregrious examples are discouraged, and in the interest of animal rights campaigns that there are fewer experiments, so there should, I'd argue, be something to talk about. We're always going to putting the case for tighter restrictions, but that's a debate that can be productive.

    Your comments suggest that you do accept the basic idea of the cost-benefit test? 
    I do, sure, but I am not a researcher and in the science communication community I am in the tiny minority, that is why I wrote about it.  In other instances where I have mentioned we should have more of a common-sense metric for funding - or a politician has - there has been outrage and a defense of the philosophical concept of basic research; some scientists want the money but no accountability.

    I'm really not even against your cultural position but I have to call them how I see them so when you said BUAV were not an aggressive group, and the boss is saying something quite aggressive, and the premise and the tone of the group is aggressive, well, that is aggressive.

    In the US, there is no chance at all that 91% of funding in any field leads to any benefit.    If the UK government has any segment that is 91% efficient, you should be over the moon about it - really.   Most government groups and funding start at 50% efficiency and go down from there.   So criticizing something working as well as 91% and calling it a 'failure' will not lead to 95%, if people get outraged it will lead to changes that could make it only 40%.   Sometimes even activist groups need to highlight what is going right instead of harping on the tiny bit wrong.  91% was a chance for your group to tell the culture 'look at the positive inroads we have made, there is now only 9% garbage science funded using animals - we have some way to go but this is a validation our work is paying off'.

    Instead, Thew says anything less than 100% is a failure, which is demoralizing.

    Thew says anything less than 100% is a failure ...

    A 100% success rate is impossible to reach in every human endeavor.

    We may as well say that anything less than 100% of x is unacceptable, for almost any x.

    Transport safety; safety of medicines; avoidance of wrongful convictions; the list is endless.

    Yes, yes, a thousand times yes: we should avoid causing animals to suffer.  But let us focus on the real issue: the avoidance of suffering, not the avoidance of potentially life-saving research!

    As to the legal aspects, I would consider that a 9% rate of 'inadequate justification' passes the statutory tests.  I would invite any English judge to compare that to the much higher percentage of findings both criminal and civil which have been overturned on appeal due to the 'inadequate justification' of the original judgments.

    Life-saving research that didn't cause suffering would be great, but is not the option on offer. UK project licences offer a trade-off between potential benefit and degree of suffering and the regulators try to decide what an acceptable ratio is.

    The point about Bateson's report is not that 9% of promising-looking experiments didn't work out - that would be an impressively high figure, as you imply. No, Bateson found that 9% didn't get to first base by having a plausible potential benefit in the first place, so they ought to have *all* failed the cost-benefit ratio test, since the denominator is 0. You wouldn't approve a test where the researcher had left the "potential benefits" field blank. Bateson said, as noted by Hank, "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."

    Our point is the wider one that it shows that the cost-benefit test is not being rigorously applied.