The University of Washington: Failing Animals and Stunting Science

Lab Rat | Urban Hermits

Animal research is an area of controversy that we have given some attention to here on our site. While some important scientific findings have stemmed from this research, it is important that we ask, “at what cost?” New scientific developments as well as ongoing ethical discussions have forced us to reevaluate our need to exploit animals for research. One particularly noteworthy development is the NIH’s recent decision to defund all chimpanzee research. For this reason, I am shocked by the University of Washington’s decision to construct a large underground research laboratory to house their 650-plus primates, along with tens of thousands of other research animals.

The rationale behind the development of UW’s new animal research laboratory is to consolidate where their research animals are kept, improve conditions for humans and nonhumans, as well make it easier for proper oversight. This oversight is primarily provided by IACUC’s, or Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees, the Institutional Review Board equivalent for animal research at universities. Through my monitoring of these groups and my experience as a student at Penn State University, I have found that IACUC’s consist of researchers who experiment on animals and are sympathetic to those who do, willing to approve any project as long as the harm to the animal is not egregious. What they will not reject, however, is research that has minimal scientific value but is harmful to the animals. For example, a researcher could easily get a project approved that examines fear responses in mink, holding captive and harassing animals with little benefit to society. Such studies are simply ploys to produce sparsely read academic journal articles.

With animal research in the spotlight, UW’s new lab has received a lot of media attention, both in opposition and support of it. Animal rights activists argue that the underground lab is to keep the facility out of the public eye while animals are tortured and killed. Proponents counter by stating that the facility will improve welfare and will allow for beneficial scientific advancements. They also argue that researchers have been wrongly stereotyped as callous and insensitive to animals because of a few high-profile cases of abuse.

I argue, however, that it is difficult to respect life when it is encapsulated in a sterile, controlling environment. Where rats live in transparent drawers by the thousands, stacked up to the top of walls. Where primates only leave their enclosures for surgeries.

UW decides to live in the past while other universities and institutions look for ways to move beyond animal research.

Other sources: http://www.democracynow.org/2016/1/20/headlines/new_york_animal_rights_activists_target_construction_firm_over_seattle_research_lab

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Why Criticizing Science as “Biased” Gets Us Nowhere; An Example with Fox News

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Hi all,

I am always fascinated to hear claims that particular scientific studies are, “biased”. While it is true that there is a lot of unscientific and fradulant findings being published all the time, we need to understand that scientists are people, who hold values and have opinions just as we do. What makes a good scientist is being able to create an objective platform from which empirical research can be conducted. A scientist, or any good thinker for that matter, needs to be able to disconnect their work from their values, beliefs, and attitudes. That being said, it is unreasonable to expect someone to go into science if they have no interest in what their are studying. However, it seems that is what we sometimes expect.

In a recent Fox News article, contributor Kelley Beaucar Vlahos discusses criticism (including her own) of some of the scientific studies that influenced New York State’s recent ban of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas. Vlahos accuses the scientists of being “biased” and having ties to the “anti-fracking movement”. This report was peer reviewed, a process that is used to maintain scientific integrity. As reported, the peer reviewers did not know the authors. Furthermore, as a scientist myself (well, studying to be one), I can tell you that the peer review process is often blind, meaning that the authors have no idea who is reviewing their paper and the reviewers do not know whose paper it is at the time of review. The article, however, claims that the authors as well as reviewers were biased, as they are opposed to hydraulic fracturing. What it does not discuss, is why they are opposed. Does their opposition stem from some of their findings as well as other peer reviewed science? Someone is not just simply born a “fractivist”. Scientific studies need to be assessed by their methodology, not the personal characteristics of the scientist. There is no doubt that our attitudes and values affect how we filter information, which can certainly influence how we view findings, but part of being a good scientist is being aware of this.

Finally, the article claims that the scientists did not disclose their political views, etc. in the paper. While it is a standard to disclose conflicts re: financing, stake in ownership, etc., in science, it is not standard to have to disclose political views. For example, do I need to say that I am a “environmentalist, vegetarian…etc.” anytime I write something? Furthermore, if the way to eliminate bias is just to have “pro-fracking” scientists have their own study and then “anti-fracking” scientists have their study, why even have science? That would just be politics.

Dismissing peer-reviewing science as “biased” is totalitarian. It is an attempt to look past important findings that we may not like, which is exactly what Vlahos and Fox News are doing in this instance. We definitely need to understanding the context of scientific studies and it, but there is no purely “objective” study, at the very least there are values implicit in how we measure things. Although minimal, science needs some human input or else there would be no studies; but discarding studies as “biased” that go against your agenda, as opposed to challenging yourself, doesn’t do us any good.

Happy Hermiting, folks.

Image: http://www.stcplanning.org/index.asp?pageId=153

Latest on the GMO Debate

Here’s some interesting contrast for you. Robert Fraley, the chief technology officer and executive vice president of Monsanto was awarded the World Food Prize, along with two other individuals. Fraley has been very instrumental in the introduction of genetically modified crops. He was awarded this prize on the basis of increasing the yield of food and its resistance to pests. However, as you all know, the introduction of GMOs into our food system has been controversial and has led to as many questions as answers. This award is just another notch on Monsanto’s walking stick, but a point of contention for environmentalists, or for that matter, anybody who eats. Read more in Andrew Pollack’s New York Times article.

On the other end of the spectrum, Connecticut has just become the first state to pass a law requiring GMO foods to be labeled as such. However, there is a kicker, and a strange one. The law required a “compromise” for it to pass, that requires four other states, one that borders Connecticut, to pass similar laws before it becomes effective. Massachusetts seems to be a strong candidate. It looks like the lobbyists did their job! Maybe it will backfire. Read more at RT.com’s article.

 

Researchers with Genetically Modified Corn

Sources: Pollack, Andrew. “Executive at Monsanto wins global food honor”. The New York Times. 19 June 2013.

“Connecticut passes first GMO food labeling law in US”. RT.com. 5 June 2013.

Image: Next Generation Food Online

Canadian Government Ups Tar Sands Advertising

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Now it would be nice for me to post about something besides the Alberta Tar Sands (and I will very soon), but you can’t make this stuff up. In light of Barack Obama having to make a decision about the XL Pipeline this year, the Canadian Government has doubled its advertising budget. Who would’ve thought that you need to launch a massive advertising campaign for a huge deposit of one of the most vital natural resources on the planet? Well, just ask the European Union, which has officially categorized Tar Sands as separate from conventional crude oil due to the higher resulting greenhouse gas emissions. The Canadian Government considers this to be: “Discriminatory…not based on science and it would potentially hurt Canada’s ability to access markets for its resources” (Goldenberg 2013). Hilarious.

Check out Suzanne Goldenberg’s great article in The Guardian here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2013/may/16/canadian-government-doubles-advertising-spend-tar-sands#ixzz2Uhh5zVrW

Oh, and that picture is of Joe Oliver, Canadian Minster of Natural Resources. Good guy…..

Source: “Canadian Government Doubles Advertising Spend on Tar Sands”. Suzanne Goldenberg. The Guardian. 16 May 2013.

Image: Oil Change International

Plant Talk

Two recent articles shed light on different ways plants communicate. The Huffington Post described a study by BMC Ecology in which sound wave vibration emitted by plants affects growth of neighboring plants.

Image Credit BBC

Mycorrhizae

The article stated, “Despite the separation, chili seeds germinated faster when basil was a neighbor, suggesting that a message was getting through. Because light, touch, and chemical “smell” were ruled out, the team proposes that the finding points to a new type of communication between plants, possibly involving nanoscale sound waves, traveling through the dirt to bring encouraging “words” to the growing seeds.” BBC released an article delving into a study by the University of Aberdeen, the James Hutton Institute, and Rothamsted Research on plant communication between fungus networks. These networks, called “mycorrhizae”, have the ability to relay warning signals from damaged and infested plants to their neighbors.

Not only are both studies mind-boggling, they hold potential for agricultural systems to better understand how to arrange and strategize their crops.

Sources: Andrew Porterfield, The Huffington Post, May 7 2013; BBC, May 10 2013

Image: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-22462855