It's pretty rare for the Animal Liberation Front -- a group that supports activities to "liberate" lab animals and to halt many experiments -- to praise a university. But the front released a news release this week applauding Oklahoma State University for calling off a research project on anthrax vaccines -- supported by the National Institutes of Health -- that would have involved euthanizing baboons used in the project. The group urged its supporters to write to Burns Hargis, president at Oklahoma State, to thank him "for sparing our primate friends from torture and death."
To many scientists -- frustrated by a rise in attacks on researchers by animal rights groups -- the idea that a research university is calling off NIH-sponsored research and getting praised for it by the ALF is enough to raise eyebrows. Add in a series of vague statements by Oklahoma State officials, and a prominent university donor who is active in the animal rights movement, and still more questions emerge. Oklahoma State is taking a beating in the scientific blogosphere, and science groups are also asking questions about the decision.
Oklahoma State leaders deny that they caved to pressure. Hargis, the president, recently sent an e-mail message to all faculty members in which he said that coverage of the decision to call off the research project has "led to misimpressions" about his action. In an op-ed published in the student newspaper and elsewhere, Hargis writes: "The decision is controversial. It has been suggested that this decision was reached arbitrarily and it was influenced by animal rights activists as well as a donor. Nothing could be further from the truth."
He goes on to mention logistical issues and the fact that Oklahoma State would be a subcontractor in the research, to say that he decided to call off the project only after "extensive consultations with experts" and to say that he regrets that the decision has been "sensationalized" by some who oppose it.
Why might some at Oklahoma State and elsewhere doubt that scientific and practical issues were all that mattered? First, there's recent history. In April, Oklahoma State University announced that it would no longer euthanize animals after students perform surgeries on them at the institution's veterinary college. The university acted after Madeleine Pickens asked that a $5 million donation to the veterinary college be redirected because of her opposition to the practice. Pickens is the wife of T. Boone Pickens, a billionaire mega-donor to the university. Madeleine Pickens said that, because of the policy change, she'll leave her gift where it is at Oklahoma State.
Madeleine Pickens maintains a Web site about her work with wild horses and other animals. Those who visit the site will find an article about the Oklahoma State decision to call off the anthrax study -- with the headline: "Kudos for a Great Decision! – OSU President Cancels Anthrax Study Proposal Requiring Primate Euthanasia."
Then there are the statements of Oklahoma State officials that suggest fear of animal rights activists played a role in the decision.
Oklahoma State's vice president for research and technology transfer, Stephen McKeever, told Science that Pickens wasn't involved in the decision at all. He was quoted as saying: "The issue [Hargis] was mostly concerned about was that he really did not want to attract controversy from the violent elements of various animal rights groups. He did not want to put OSU in that spotlight and so unnecessarily distract from or interfere with current research."
And despite the university president's statement that animal rights groups didn't influence the decision, Gary Shutt, director of communications, confirmed in an interview Tuesday that the decision was based in part on what other universities -- particularly in California -- have experienced when their researchers have become the targets of animal rights groups.
"There are various factors -- there are some confidential things that the president learned as he discussed this with presidents of other universities, and people outside the university that raised some concern and also the factor that this is controversial research," Shutt said.
He stressed that no threats had been received against Oklahoma State, and that the concern came from what has happened at other campuses.
Asked whether canceling a research project because it is controversial and could lead to threats might undermine academic freedom, Shutt said "we're not going to get into all of that."
President Hargis attended a faculty meeting Tuesday where he heard complaints that he hadn't in fact consulted with professors on the matter. Some faculty members are particularly concerned because the research in question had undergone (and received approval from) the faculty committee charged with overseeing research involving animals. Shutt said that the president acknowledged that he had made the decision "without consulting the faculty and said that wouldn't happen again." Shutt said that while the president was committed to working on "the process" for future consultation, he would not reconsider this decision.
Shutt also denied that the university has a reputation for letting non-academics dictate matters involving animal use in teaching in research. He said that Madeleine Pickens played no role in the current discussions and that reports of her involvement in the April policy changes at the veterinary college were not entirely correct. He said that the veterinary college was already thinking about changing the way it used animals before she raised the issue, so it was unfair to say that she had forced the decision. He acknowledged, however, that Pickens "had raised the issue."
The action at Oklahoma State comes just after the American Association of University Professors issued a report expressing fear that colleges and universities were giving in too easily to threats (or even the possibility of threats) by extremists of various sorts, and calling on colleges to stand behind their professors when their work was challenged.
Cary Nelson, national president of the AAUP, said he was concerned about the way the university called off the research project. "I expect that Oklahoma State has procedures for reviewing and approving grants before they are submitted. Such orderly due process is fundamental to academic freedom," he said, noting that the NIH would also have reviewed the project. "It is the duty of the university to make certain that faculty members can carry out research that has been locally approved and federally funded. Fear of consequences gives us a telling example of administrative cowardice at Oklahoma State but not a satisfactory reason for canceling a research project. Once again, a university has caved in to imagined threats."
Groups that have been raising concerns about Oklahoma State's handling of the situation include the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology and The Tulsa World, which ran an editorial stating that "legitimate science and the search for answers to pressing questions ought to be the school's guiding criteria in the decision-making process."