Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Basso Affair

An October 4, 2010 letter from an executive committee of UW-Madison’s Faculty Senate to Chancellor Biddy Martin is the newest bit of the ever growing mountain of evidence that oversight of research using animals at the university is out of control and grossly ineffective.

The failures were recognized by the university’s senior administrators years ago, according to them, but left uncorrected until a crisis loomed, threatening the immense flow of cash from the public coffers, now said to be over $1 billion annually. (That's a lot of motivation.)

As a result, a dramatic and controversial restructuring of oversight was announced by Chancellor Martin and Provost Paul DeLuca in 2009. Martin explained in a letter to faulty and students that restructuring was needed because: “a number of safety and compliance problems ... have led to investigations and fines by major federal funding agencies and have required crisis-like efforts on the part of the university administration to avoid harsher sanctions...”. Biddy Martin. “From the desk of the chancellor: Chancellor addresses Graduate School proposal.” Oct. 21, 2009.
The provost says that the complexity involved in administering a research enterprise as large as UW-Madison’s was shown in a pair of incidents during the past six months.

A threatened loss of accreditation through the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care could have caused “a suspension of research funding in all areas using animals,” DeLuca says. “Only by a last-ditch effort were we able to put into place needed facilities and processes to engender a successful review,” he says. “That’s an example of not aligning our resources to our needs.”

The second concerned biosafety compliance, he says. “We were behind in biosafety protocol management by hundreds of protocols. We had not marshaled the resources and manpower, and did not have a mechanism to get that done,” he says. (“Graduate School proposal aired at meetings.” David Tenenbaum. University of Wisconsin News. Oct. 21, 2009.)
[For more on this second problem, see: "Say no to new UW-Madison germ lab." Rick Bogle. Isthmus. October 8, 2009.]

The current case puts the lie to the university’s perennial claim that all is well in its animal labs. It underscores in bright red the plain undeniable fact that the care of the animals is the lowest priority and that their welfare is the first thing jettisoned when egos clash.

From late in 2009 throughout most of 2010, the Alliance for Animals worked to establish a county-sanctioned citizens’ advisory panel to consider the use of monkeys at the university. Opposition to this idea came almost entirely from university staff paid to experiment on monkeys and from a few others outside the university also with financial interests in the use of monkeys. [See: "Opposition to Res 35."]

Scott McDonell, Chair of the Dane County Board of Supervisors and his protégé Jeremy Levin apparently worked with the university behind the scenes to successfully scuttle this effort. [See "UW animal research agenda merits closer community scrutiny." Rick Marolt. Isthmus. October 14, 2010.] They argued that what's happening in the labs is no business of the public’s, that we are too dull to understand why the animals are being used, that the university is completely trustworthy, that the university is the best arbiter of its animal use, and that the experiments are fully and meaningful regulated. (Toadies or just duped? Either way, they are poor public representatives.)

Unknowingly, even as we worked to establish a citizens’ panel, the UW Faculty Senate was investigating researcher Michele Basso’s allegation that she was treated unfairly and without due process when her experiments on monkeys were suspended in February 2009. [An aside: public access to the Basso lab web page is now blocked and requires a password. See: "Visit the Basso Lab."]

A common concern raised by UW researchers regarding the proposed citizens’ panel was the possibility that it would be biased; because the panel was never convened, the validity of their concern cannot be determined. Arguably, this concern doesn’t apply to the University Committee, which makes its findings particularly worthy of notice.

Their report is made up of thirty-seven Findings, four Conclusions, and nine Recommendations.

To understand the nature and severity of the problems exposed by this internal report, consider the weight and implications of Findings 3, 4 and 6:
3. Professor Basso’s research is more invasive that that of any other UW-Madison non-human primate researcher.

4. Due to the invasive nature of Professor Basso’s research, there are predictable complications for her research animals.

6. By all accounts, neither her department nor the School of Medicine and Public Health were prepared to support Professor Basso’s research program. The Medical Sciences Center facilities, where Professor Basso conducted her research, did not have veterinarians on staff who were adequately trained/prepared in the care of the non-human primates Professor Basso used in her studies, nor did it have a sufficient number of veterinarians....
Basso apparently agrees that her procedures may be the most invasive ones using monkeys (and probably any other animals) on campus. She wrote in her response to Welter:
Our experiments are more complicate than [redacted] or [redacted] We have multiple cylinders (up to three) on our explants. This leaves the underlying support structure [a monkey’s skull] less stabile and reduces the life expectance of the explants. We perform recording experiments from very deep midbrain and brainstem structures making each penetration more risky than experiments performed on cerebral cortex for example.
Basso has been at UW-Madison since approximately 2000/01. During the past decade she has had a number of problems, documented as early as 2002. In her May 4, 2009 letter to William Mellon, Associate Dean for Research Policy, chief campus veterinarian Janet Welter wrote: “Starting 4/24/02, an animal (# 09089) was noted to have 9 eye coil replacement surgeries, with the last one being 9/21/06. Despite multiple instances of eye coil failure, the PI sought no assistance until pressured by the SMPH [School of Medicine and Public Health] ACUC.”

Now we know, from the University Committee letter to Chancellor Martin, that in spite of multiple deaths, recurring problems, and unending bickering between the Basso lab and campus veterinarians, nothing substantive was done for half a decade.

And it turns out that the All Campus Animal Care and Use Committee* suspended her animal use only after years of multiple serious problems, yet did so in a bumbling manner that violated the university’s internal due process for disciplinary matters.

This isn’t a surprise because the animal oversight committees seem unable to comply with any regulations, whether internal, state, or federal.

So Basso’s research methods were known ahead of time to be highly invasive. Yet no provisions were made to provide the animals with qualified veterinary care. Even after the SMPH ACUC twice tried to suspend her work, the senior university administration stood by and did little; they allowed more surgeries, abscessed brains, and more deaths.

There is a suggestion hidden in the University Committee’s letter to Chancellor Martin that Basso’s methods and problems were whitewashed, that she received tenure in response to criticism of her experiments by animal rights activists.
Finding 13: Former Chancellor John Wiley distributed a letter date 13 March 2006 to residents of Madison’s Nakoma neighborhood alerting them “that animal rights activists may be protesting the use of animals in biomedical research ... in your neighborhood because many of you are faculty, staff, or students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, some of whom are involved in biomedical research.” He goes on to make reference to Professor Basso’s work and states that “professor Basso’s laboratory has passed all inspections with no reports of non-compliance.”
How would it have looked if the university had admitted that her research was being challenged internally as well, that the university was doing a poor job overseeing her research or even supplying her animals with adequate veterinary care? They needed to downplay claims being made by activists that her research was causing profound suffering (which in fact, internal documents say was indeed the case.)

Later on in 2006, she testified before WI Congressman Petri’s Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security's Legislative Hearing on H.R. 4239, the "Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act," saying that she had received unwanted magazine and book club subscriptions in the mail.

In her testimony she said:

“It is critical to point out that biomedical research is subject to very strict regulations and oversight.”

“We have an animal care and use committee for each school at Madison and an all campus committee that oversees all schools. My research meets or exceeds all standards set by the USDA, Public Health Service Policy as well as local guidelines for the care and use of non human primates in research.” [See: "Basso: Cover-Up? Conspiracy? Scandal."]

But in spite of “no reports [from USDA/APHIS] of non-compliance,”...
Finding 15: In late 2008, SMPH administration sought to have the SMPH ACUC shut down Professor Basso’s research program. Subsequently, there were two motions by the School of Medicine and Public Health Anima Care and Use Committee to revoke professor Basso’s animal use privileges, both of which failed on tie votes. SMPH administration then sought successfully to have the All Campus ACUC shut down her research.
We need to place all of this in context.

First, the admission/claim/assertion that Basso’s experiments are the most invasive is remarkable given the extreme invasiveness of Ei Terasawa’s experiments on monkeys’ pituitary gland, Kalin/Davidson’s monkey brain ablation experiments, or even Paul Kaufman’s experiments on monkeys' eyes.

Second, this new evidence of the university’s long failure to provide qualified veterinary care to the monkeys in Basso’s lab is diametrically at odds with official and unofficial university statements concerning its animal care program.

Third, as was pointed out in the coverage of the University Committee’s report, no one other than Basso has claimed that the monkeys she was using were appropriately care for.

Fourth, and I will write more about this later, the Basso affair and the university’s assertions that all is well must be seen against the backdrop of the unprecedented scrutiny being paid to their animal care and use program by the USDA and NIH.

And fifth, all efforts by the public to look more deeply into the university’s use of animals have been either rebuked outright or else, when legal constraints force them to comply, have resulted in a reluctant release of heavily redacted documents.

Clearly and beyond any silly assertion to the contrary, oversight of animal care and use at the University of Wisconsin–Madison is a catastrophe for the animals. It could be a significant problem for the university as well since a team of federal investigators is now on campus trying to determine exactly where things fell apart, why they were not corrected, who is responsible, and what fines, if any, should be levied.

It should be clear at the very least that the responsibility for the many problems and great suffering rests ultimately with the Chancellor. But just below her in the chain of command, and arguably even more personally responsible are Provost DeLuca and Vice-Chancellor for research Martin Cadwallader.

But more than them, it would be difficult to find anyone who failed more miserably in their responsibility to maintain the paltry minimum requirements of the Animal Welfare Act than the current director of the Research Animal Resource Center and past chair of the All Campus ACUC, Eric Sandgren.

It is past time to open the university to public scrutiny and to get rid of the deadwood protecting the bad apples and bamboozling the public. This long history of bamboozing, hoodwinking, and cover-up, brings us right back to the university’s efforts to deflect public concern over the use of monkeys and other animals.
Finding 21: The members of the All Campus ACUC had little expertise/experience with non-human primate research.
[But see “Campus Connection: Panel says ethics considered before monkey research.” Todd Finkelmeyer. The Capital Times January 9, 2010.] Chancellor Martin felt that the All Campus ACUC was the appropriate body to consider the ethics of experimenting on monkeys. During Biddy’s short tenure at the university she has demonstrated a rather remarkably poor decision-making ability when it comes to anything regarding the use of animals. She has argued that there is no reason to debate the use of animals, but then has told the All Campus ACUC to consider the ethics of experiments on monkeys; she has argued that there is no reason for the public or the county to look into the university’s use of animals, but has announced a series of “public forums” to address the matter. She also wrote a long rambling letter to faculty, staff, and students about the Basso affair, but then had the letter taken off the university website.

In her defense, when it comes to the use of animals in laboratory-based research, few if any defenders are able to mount a consistent cogent argument.

Finally, there is one bit of ironic dark humor in the University Committee’s letter to Chancellor Martin. The committee’s first recommendation is this:
1. Whenever the welfare of a research animal is at risk, the institutional official should be promptly informed and that institutional official should make a decision whether to suspend the investigator’s animal use privileges. In dire situations it may not me possible to convene the responsible ACUC to examine the situation.
This naiveté is mind-numbing. “Whenever the welfare of a research animal is at risk...”? The welfare of every animal used in research on campus is at risk. It is precisely this risk that necessitates the implementation of laws and regulations – regardless of their limited effect – to govern animal use. If the institutional official was actually notified and expected to make a decision “whenever the welfare of a research animal is at risk,” that is all that person would do day in and day out. Right now, their only job is to sign a statement to NIH promising that their institution will obey all local and federal regulations. The UW-Madison institutional official hasn’t even been able to keep that promise.

*Unlike most (all?) other institutions using animals, UW-Madison has multiple Animal Care and Use Committees. There is one each for the vet school, the grad school, the ag school, Arts and Sciences, the med school, and (now said by NIH to be in violation of the Public Heath Services regulations) the All Campus ACUC. Most institutions (all the rest?) have only one.

Related posts:

UW panel violated Basso's rights
Who killed Res 35?
Opposition to Res 35
What's Bucky Afraid Of?
Biddy Martin’s Argument
Planet Biddy
Primate Center Director Hopeful Calls Sifting and Winnowing “Undemocratic”
Biddy Urges Less Winnowing
Basso: Cover-Up? Conspiracy? Scandal.
Biddy Martin on Basso
Dane Co. Board Debates Controversial UW Animal Research
Public Debate on the Ethics of Monkey Research
"No real accountability."
The pattern is easy to see
UW Madison's New Chancellor
New USDA Investigation at UW-Madison
WSJ: Much more than a day late
I told you so...
Basso's Relevance
Dirty laundry to be publicly aired: Basso's cruel crap
Dogma: Basso's lab's best argument?
UW-Madison Animal Research - More Problems Ahead
The "Best Science"
Michele Basso is Being Investigated
The Party Line
"Stay the course!"
Ethics at UW-Madison
Not So Deep Thinking
Eric Sandgren: “We do not make excuses.”
“Is experimenting on monkeys ethical?”
UW's Big Rug

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