Saturday, December 20, 2014

Impartiality

impartial.

Synonyms: candid, disinterested, dispassionate, equal, equitable, evenhanded, fair, indifferent, just, nonpartisan, objective, square, unbiased, unprejudiced

Antonyms: biased, ex parte, inequitable, nonobjective, one-sided, partial, parti pris, partisan, prejudiced, unjust (Merriam-Webster.com)

"An executive branch employee must remain impartial when performing Government duties." (United States Office of Government Ethics)

"Animal care and use in the United States is a controversial topic with varying points of view from the public, animal rights groups, breeders, research laboratories, and others." (Audit Report APHIS Animal Care Program. Inspection and Enforcement Activities. Office of the Inspector General. USDA Report No. 33002-3-SF. September 2005.)

For the most part the controversy is played out and best understood as an argument between those whose livelihoods are dependent on the use of animals and those who are opposed to that use of animals. I'm going to use the shorthand vivisectors and activists.

Executive branch employees from two agencies, USDA and NIH, are directly involved in the oversight of animal experimentation and the enforcement of federal regulations concerning that use of animals.

Both agencies are asked regularly for copies of public records in their possession that relate to the agencies' oversight and enforcement activities. Both agencies have public records specialists who respond to those requests and decide if and what information should be censored in the copies they provide in response to those requests.

These public records can and regularly do lead animal rights groups and members of the public to publicizing problems, violations, and descriptions of experimental procedures that they argue are cruel and should be stopped.

Various states have enacted laws designed to shield such records from public scrutiny by exempting such records from those states' public records laws. Other states have resisted industry pressure and have more uniform and impartial laws.

Access to these records plays a pivotal role in the controversy. There is considerable tension between vivisectors and activists regarding these records.

The USDA and NIH are central to this tension. The agencies' handling of public records requests is dictated by the Freedom of Information Act. Executive branch employees must remain impartial when performing government duties.

Does this sound impartial:

USDA and NIH spokespersons and public information specialists and an animal research investigator with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals put on a webinar to explain ways to get better information about what's going on in the labs.

I'll wager that if such an event was announced ahead of time that it would never air. The pressure from the industry would prevail and the agencies would be roundly chastised on all the vivisector blogs and lists. No one would argue that such a presentation was impartial. It would send a strong message of favoritism if the agencies provided a platform for PETA and publicly broadcast their suggestions on getting more access to public records.

The agencies have just done something very similar. Instead of PETA, they joined up with NABR, the National Association for Biomedical Research. Fictitiously, or completely tongue-in-cheek, they said it was all about openness and transparency; it was, but they seem to be against it. Here's the announcement they sent:
Hampton, Lori (NIH/OD) [E]
[Animal Welfare Program Specialist. Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare]
[December 19, 2014]
to OLAW-L

"Openness and Transparency and Biomedical Research Oversight” Webinar Available for Viewing

A recording of the OLAW Online Seminar, Openness and Transparency and Biomedical Research Oversight, broadcast on December 4, 2014 has been posted on the OLAW website. In this webinar a panel of experts discussed the relationship of the Federal FOIA and states open records laws to the USDA OLAW MOU that promotes continual improvement in animal welfare and reduces redundancy in oversight and regulatory burden. The recording and supporting materials can be found on the Education Resources webpage.
Here are the participants: B. Taylor Bennett, DVM, PhD, DACLAM, DACAW, National Association for Biomedical Research
Betty Goldentyer, DVM, Animal Care, APHIS, USDA
Margaret Snyder, PhD, Office of Extramural Research, NIH
Axel Wolff, MS, DVM, OLAW
George Babcock, PhD, University of Cincinnati and OLAW
Nicole Zimmerman, BS, OLAW

That's alphabet soup.

OLAW: that's the NIH's animal research oversight unit, the Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare

The MOU is a memorandum of understanding; its long title and identifying info is:

MEMORANDUM OF UNDERSTANDING AMONG
THE ANIMAL AND PLANT HEALTH INSPECTION SERVICE
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE
AND
THE FOOD AND DRUG ADMINISTRATION
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES
AND
THE NATIONAL INSTITUTES OF HEALTH
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES
CONCERNING LABORATORY ANIMAL WELFARE

APHIS Agreement No. 11-6100-0027-MU
MOU Number: 225-06-4000

B. Taylor Bennett, DVM, PhD, DACLAM, DACAW, National Association for Biomedical Research, is a vivsection industry lobbyist. He is matter of fact about trying to end or dramatically limit access to public records and urges his audience to use state laws to achieve that goal.

His participation in this webinar makes me think that the organizers did not remain impartial when they were performing their Government duties.

This isn't news though. Sadly. This chummy, seemingly conspiratorial relationship between the industry and its federal regulators has been long understood by activists; citizens usually raise their eyebrows in disbelief when told of this, or else say they aren't surprised.