Should research ethics protect non-human primates as children?

I’ve played with the idea of writing about why chimpanzees are not more protected than children. But whenever I start to develop the argument it seems absurd – anyone who knows what laboratory animal research regulation looks like knows that chimpanzees are not more protected than children! Except that I regularly come across people who argue that in Europe chimpanzees are more protected than children.

I understand where the argument comes from: there is a single regulatory framework for research with animals in Europe (Directive 2010/63/EU) but not for research involving children. Now, this doesn’t mean that there are no rules for children’s participation in research, it only means that the rules differ between countries. And as far as I know, none of these rules allows any researcher to involve a child in invasive and risky research under any condition – except perhaps if that research is likely to help the child. In contrast, a so called safeguard clause allows EU Member States to lift the general ban on the use of great apes (chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans and gorillas) in invasive research “in relation to an unexpected outbreak of a lifethreatening or debilitating clinical condition in human beings” (Directive 2010/63/EU Article 55:2). Or in other words, facing an outbreak of Ebola in Europe, vaccine trials in chimpanzees would be permissible. (Whether this research could actually be done in practice is a different question. For a long time, the only industrialized country to keep chimpanzees for invasive research was the USA, but in 2015 the NIH announced it would no longer fund such research and lab chimps are now being retired into sanctuaries).

Interestingly, before I got around to writing any of this, I came across this paper which proposes that research regulation should protect chimpanzees and in fact all non-human primates (NHPs) in much the same way as it protects human research subjects. The authors argue that with so many important similarities in cognitive, emotional and social capacities, it doesn’t make sense to have different ethical frameworks depending on whether a primate is human or non-human. Therefore, they argue, we should move non-human primates out of the utilitarian framework that is generally applied to animal research ethics and into the deontological framework that applies to human research subjects. In practice, this means that research with non-human primates should respect the principles of beneficence and non-malevolence, or in other words, research should preferably benefit and definitely not harm the research subjects.

The paper is an interesting contribution to the debate and well worth reading, for the ideas and the examples of research that would be acceptable under a deontological framework. The idea that some animals should be given a rights-based protection is not new (it underlies the entire animal rights movement), but the paper contributes a unique discussion of the potential to do biomedical research with NHPs in a way that is compatible with the principles of benevolence, non-maleficience and even autonomy and justice. Unfortunately, I don’t think that the picture they paint is realistic. What can be achieved by studying naturally occurring situations is strongly limited, and I would have appreciated if the authors had been more thorough in their analysis of  what research would be made impossible if changing the ethical framework. On the other hand, if this were a paper about how to protect children in research, nobody would dream of arguing about the important research benefits to be lost if children couldn’t be harmed in research! This observation in itself clearly marks the difference in thinking about research in utilitarian and consequentialist terms versus in deontological terms.

From a pragmatic perspective, taking into account the diversity of opinion on the matter, I don’t foresee a change of framework any time soon for non-human primates in research at large. A change for the great apes is way more likely to happen in the near future. With the phasing out of invasive research in chimpanzees, the only great ape species which really played a role in biomedical research, a full ban may be accepted without much protest. By then, it may be reasonable to ask if chimpanzees enjoy greater protection than children in biomedical research. .




Why the abstract shouldn’t be abstract!

A while ago I had a brief exchange with a friend about the accessibility of research results. Not whether they are clear or understandable – simply whether somebody who’s not in an academic research institution can even get their eyes on them. Often, they can’t. because research is published in academic journals owned by publishers who want to earn money from people’s interest in reading scientific information. When this is the case, all that the common mortal can access is the abstract or summary of the paper.

There is much to be said about ways around it through Open Access publishing. But even a researcher who doesn’t consider themselves to be able to publish OA can do something to make the results accessible – and it isn’t that difficult. Use the abstract!

Here’s an illustrative example of how not to use the abstract. Of the all-in-all 10 000 words available to them, the authors used 94 for the publicly visible abstract, and not surprisingly, we don’t get to learn much about the research through these 94 words. In contrast, this example from the same journal demonstrates how 250 words is enough to clearly describe the research question, the methods and the results.

Open Science in October

Do you think about Open Science? Do you practice Open Science? Do you think Open Science matters? My research group is working on the topic during the month of October, with the aim of formulating an Open Science strategy for the group. We’re doing this because we think it makes sense for us to put Open Science into practice, but we need to work out the best way for us and our research.

We identified the following burning issues:

  • Study preregistration
  • Protocol and methods sharing
  • Data sharing
  • Preprint publication

These are the ones we are interested in but need to know more about in order to be able to practice (or make an informed decision not to practice) them. In addition, we prioritize  open access publishing and social media communication – but we’re already working on this. Although with a permanent backlog, we are uploading papers to the university open repository and we try to keep the group’s Facebook page up to date.

In a month, I hope to be able to report back on this. In the meantime, if you want to learn more about Open Science you may want to look at the FOSTER project.