A look at the NIH workshop "Continued Responsible Oversight of Research with Non-Human Primates"
Part 2. The Big IACUC
Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees are the cornerstone of the oversight system in the United States. They meet the requirements set forth by both the Public Health Service Policy on Humane Care and Use of Laboratory Animals (Frequently Asked Questions about the Public Health Service Policy on Humane Care and Use of Laboratory Animals) and the Animal Welfare Act (Animal Welfare Act Quick Reference Guides).
Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees (IACUCs or ACUCs) main, sometimes only role, is to verify that a project using animals is legal. In order to be legal, the project leader(s) must fill out a form that explains what they intend to do to animals and why. Among other things, they need to state the number of animals they want to use, the species, and what if anything they will do to address any pain or distress they imagine the animals might or will experience. They can do anything they choose to do so long as they explain their scientific reasons and the ACUC approves it. As long as the ACUC approves, they don't have to provide any pain relief or much of anything else.
In some cases, the University of Wisconsin, Madison is one example, researchers are provided with some of the text they need to enter on the form.
ACUCs apparently struggle at making sure an approved protocol will pass muster if a USDA inspector happens to looks at it. Inspectors sometimes respond to public complaints about specific projects and occasionally spot-check approved protocols if they see something odd, if they are one of the inspectors who happen to give a damn. But other than more or less assuring that the project is legal, ACUCs are not consistent, and are pretty haphazard and arbitrary in their decision-making. (See the only peer-reviewed evaluation of the system: Study Finds Inconsistency in Animal Research Reviews, 2001.)
So it comes as no surprise that the NIH workshop was such an abject failure with regard to meeting its charge of openly and honestly evaluating the ethics of primate vivisection. The workshop was just a very big IACUC. There were two public members, Tom L. Beauchamp, Professor of Philosophy and Senior Research Scholar, Kennedy Institute of Ethics, and Jeffrey Kahn, Director of the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics. From the video, it appears that there were about 30 people at the table. No roster has been produced. Other than Beauchamp and Kahn, it appears that everyone else was financially and professionally vested in the use of monkeys.
Generally speaking, regulations require a minimum of three people on an ACUC, an institution official, a veterinarian familiar with the use of animals in research, and a non-institution- affiliated member of the public. In practice, ACUCs are usually larger. One survey found that just half of all regulated institutions had 6 to 10 people on their committees, and only 10% had fewer. In every case I am aware of, larger committee have proportionally fewer non-aligned members. The added members are almost always institution employees and usually vivisectors.
It is no surprise that they rarely refuse to approve a project; almost everyone on the committees use animals in their own work or else are part of the institutional apparatus for hosting and supporting scientists using animals. The money that comes with the use of animals is the life blood of many if not all of the large universities.
So, either by design or out of willful ignorance, NIH chose to emulate the ACUC model as a means of examining the ethics of using monkeys in harmful usually fatal publicly-funded projects. In this case the ratio of those with a clear vested interest in the outcome to those with no financial interest in the outcome was about 28 to 2. The outcome was foregone.
Part 3. Some Interesting Bits and Pieces