Saturday, May 20, 2017

UW-Madison Urges Lawmakers to Gut Regulations

On April 26, 2017, Rebecca M. Blank, Chancellor of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, testified at the Hearing on “Duplication, Waste, and Fraud in Federal Programs,” before the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.

She fed them a line of crap pandering to the Republican majority’s hell-bent desire to strip away all constraints on money-making. She made no mention of her institution’s duplication, waste, or fraud in federal programs, nor did she mention the university's many animal welfare violations, biosafety violations, or her institution’s repeated violation of the public trust. No, her message was clear: universities should not have to follow so many federal rules or be audited so much:

“We have spent many years adding layer upon layer of federal regulations, and we’re at a point where this is seriously impeding the productivity of our scientists.”

The underlining is in the original document. That was her main claim. But it isn’t because of the regularly violated regulations that the largest number of scientists at the university are not very productive. They aren’t productive because their major premises are dead wrong, though I am using productive differently than Blank. Universities use the word to mean the number of papers that someone gets published and the dollars they are able to bring in through successful grant applications. The actual result of the research, the measure of whether it leads to better healthcare, is not a factor in their calculations. It’s all financial bottom lines.

In the words of Blank, UW-Madison operates a “more-than a billion-dollar research enterprise.” Here’s a nice graphic from the university’s 2016-2017 Data Digest (I edited out previous years):

The largest slice of the funding pie comes from the Department of Health and Human Services, which is largely from the National Institutes of Health. In 2016, the university received $285,269,042 from NIH and $83,715,200 from NSF (about $370 million) according to the agencies’ webpages. The university’s 2015-2016 “Budget in Brief” reports that:

“The largest portion of the university’s budget, approximately $890 million, or 31 percent, is from the federal government. Most of this is competitively awarded to the UW for specific research projects and supports research time for faculty, staff, and students, as well as research facilities.”

Blank told the lawmakers that, "We can’t afford to sideline potentially life-saving research. And we know the system can work better, because we’ve seen it work better. Just consider the battle against the Zika virus:
... scientists at UW-Madison are leading the fight to control Zika. Several of them are posting their data publicly online in real time to quickly give others working to control the disease the best possible information. Because of the threat to public health, their initial proposal was given high priority and approved by the UW Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) and biosafety committees about a month after the researchers submitted their materials for approval. This was at a time when South America was seeing 20,000 new Zika infections every week, so even a one-month delay came at a significant cost, but this expedited process demonstrates what is possible with good communication and a common-sense approach....
She implied that the work the scientists conducted was in someway helpful in containing the epidemic or in treating the infected children. But it wasn't on either front. David O'Connor's lab which did report on a publicly-accessible webpage some of the results of their experimental Zika infections of rhesus monkeys. The rest of the story is that the lab's use of infant monkeys doesn't seem to have had very much to do with the response from doctors and health officials. The most important information emerged from epidemiology and clinical observation.

She went on to criticize the annual federal audits which she called excessive but admitted that they are conducted to be sure that institutions have "systems and procedures in place to provide proper stewardship of federal funds." She argued that because few problems are found, that the audits aren't needed. But the fear and worry that problems could be found is probably why they aren't. She of course didn't bring up the university's difficulty with keeping track of its money.

She told the lawmakers that the audits, conducted by Inspectors General were an overreach, but she did not mention the USDA's Office of Inspector General's repeated reports on oversight on animal use at institutions like the university which have been terribly damning and largely ignored.

She said:
Federal research grants come with many strings for a number of good reasons:
▪ To guard against improper spending of taxpayer dollars.
▪ To help to ensure research integrity.
▪ To increase access to research data and results.
▪ And most important of all, to help protect humans and animals involved in research.

We must operate from a shared set of ethical principles that guide scientific research. But the way in which these principles are translated into regulations by various federal agencies has created a system of unnecessary delays and expenses.
It would be awesome if she believed that protecting animals was at all important, if the university's culture reflected that, if it were the truth. But taxpayer dollars are wasted every time another animal is injected, cut into, poisoned, hurt, or killed at the university. If regulations protecting animals matter at all to the university, they would not have repeatedly broken state anti-cruelty laws by killing sheep through rapid atmospheric decompression or staging fights between mice, but they did and then slipped in a last minute amendment to the state budget exempting the university from the state laws protecting animals. Her claims were worse than just plain nonsense. On the matter of hurting animals she and a large number of citizens definitely don't share any ethical principles. Maybe the "we" was intended for the Committee Chairman, that man of the people, Ron Johnson R(WI).

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Monday, May 15, 2017

NIH Feeds Monsters

monster: something monstrous; especially: a person of unnatural or extreme ... wickedness, or cruelty. His father was a monster who beat his children for no reason. Merriam-Webster
The National Institutes of Health had been targeted by the Trump administration for a reduction in funding, but the agency’s billions of dollars in grants has created a wealthy constituency. These millionaires and their institutions not only depend on NIH largesse, but because of it, they have the resources to hire the best lobbyists to promote the agency that enriches them. It isn’t any surprise that the proposed cut was replaced with a $2 billion increase. Some of it will end up as campaign contributions for those voting to grow the agency or argue against any reduction in its funding.

Day in and day out, there is a steady stream of “news” produced by the agency with claims about yet another scientific advancement, within just the past 30 days:

May 10, 2017: New light-sensing molecule discovered in the fruit fly brain. The discovery could help inform future research into degenerative retinal disorders.

May 3, 2017: Brain “relay” [in mice] also key to holding thoughts in the mind. Thalamus eyed as potential treatment target for schizophrenia’s working memory deficits.

May 2, 2017: NIH discovery in mice could lead to new class of medications to fight mid-life obesity

April 28, 2017: Zika virus persists in the central nervous system and lymph nodes of Rhesus monkeys

April 27, 2017: Antidepressant may enhance drug delivery to the brain. NIH rat study suggests amitriptyline temporarily inhibits the blood-brain barrier, allowing drugs to enter the brain

April 18, 2017: Researchers discover mitochondrial “circuit breaker” that protects [mouse] heart from damage

April 12, 2017: Gene silencing shows promise for treating two fatal neurological disorders. “... researchers showed that injections of the same type of drug into the brains of mice prevented early death and neurological problems associated with ALS, a paralyzing and often fatal disorder.” (Mice don’t get ALS.)

April 12, 2017: NIH scientists advance understanding of herpesvirus infection. “The scientists found they could reactivate latent HSV in a mouse model...”

April 11, 2017: NIH researchers trace origin of blood-brain barrier ‘sentry cells’— Finding in zebrafish may contribute to understanding cognitive decline of aging.

Not one of those discoveries is likely to result in even the smallest advancement in clinical care if the history of the agency’s previous announcements regarding breakthroughs using animal models is any indication of future value.

One of the outlets for NIH-crafted “news” is the NIH Record, a magazine published by the agency since 1949. The featured article in the May 5, 2017 issue was about the work of primate vivisector Michael Shadlen, a professor in the department of neuroscience at Columbia University: "A Look Under the Head: What Can Brain Mechanics Tell Us About Decision-Making?" written by the magazine’s associate editor, Carla Garnett. Not one clinical advance has emerged from his highly invasive and cruel use of monkeys.

Michael Shadlen’s experiments have been paid for by taxpayers for 20 years: MECHANISMS OF VISUAL PERCEPTION 5R01EY011378-20 Former Number: 5R01EY011378-19. Total project funding over the past 20 years: $4,419,543. He also receives an undisclosed amount of funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), and probably receives between $2 and $300,000 a year in salary. Experimenting on monkeys’ brains pays well.

The overwhelming bulk of Shadlen’s published papers are reports and speculations on the data gathered during experiments conducted on rhesus macaques. In the 80-ish papers linked to from the Shadlen lab’s website, there are no pictures of the monkeys he has used. There are cartoons of monkeys, but they at best wildly misleading. For instance:

But the monkeys he uses are decidedly not sitting on a stool happily playing a game. In his papers he commonly refers to one of his earlier papers that describes what is actually happening to the monkeys:
Subjects, surgery, and daily routine Three adult rhesus macaques (Macaca mulatta, two male and one female) were used in this study. Prior to recording, a stainless steel device for stabilizing head position was surgically attached to the skull (Evarts, 1966) and a scleral search coil for measuring eye movements was implanted around one eye (Judge et al., 1980). Following several months of training on a direction discrimination task, a stainless steel cylinder was surgically implanted over occipital cortex, allowing a posterior electrode approach for electrophysiological recording ... Following recovery from surgery, the monkeys began daily training or recording sessions that lasted from 2 to 6 hr. Each animal was comfortably seated in a primate chair with its head restrained during recording sessions, and was returned to its home cage following the session. The animal’s fluid intake was restricted during recording or training, and behavioral control was achieved using operant conditioning techniques, with water or juice as a positive reward.*
A number of Shadlen’s public lectures are available for public viewing and one is pointed to in the NIH Record article. In that lecture, he concluded with a slide showing a size progression of three brains from mouse to monkey to human, and said: “As we evolved cognition and got bigger and bigger cortical mantle, what was growing essentially was the association cortex,” he said. “I think the basic principles of decision-making that can be studied in these very simple direct paths could be telescoped out to decisions about decisions about decisions—that’s sort of what abstraction is—and that the principles understood at the level of the monkey brain will have some relevance to the kind of complicated things we do with the human brain.” He doesn't understand the basics of evolution; he seems to think it is an action verb. But then, he thinks his work will have relevance someday...

Not to put too fine a point on it, but NIH’s and HHMI’s support for this extremely cruel line of research underscores a profound and damning problem with the modern institution of science. The recent outrage by American scientists over the Trump administration’s funding cuts to this and that program have resulted in a constant barrage of advertising in the form of posts to FaceBook by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the publisher of Science and other journals. I suspect Trump’s anti-science stance has been a financial windfall for lobbying groups like AAAS.

What really gets under my skin about their ads is their repeated exhortation to readers to “Defend evidence-based policymaking,” even though they don’t and wouldn’t if law- and policymakers had the gall to make it a requirement. Doing so would immediately force a halt to the majority of the NIH-funded projects underway, and interfering with that torrent of capital would be unthinkable; its all about money, not evidence. Shadlen’s concluding statement during one of his lectures makes it clear that NIH is more than willing to fund projects without any evidence whatsoever of clinical benefit:

“And I think ultimately to treat diseases one day,” he concluded, “and restore these kinds of operations, integrations and bounds-setting—and lots of things we don’t yet understand obviously—will require manipulating brains at the levels of molecules and circuits. I know in my lab, and for many of you, there’s already at least a dialogue with [scientists] working in all of these levels, interaction with people who do human [brain] imaging and circuit dissection.”

It’s all very richly funded pie-in-the-sky at the expense of millions of animals' suffering-filled lives.

The evidence shows clearly that when money is available, many people will do terrible things to animals and to each other. And in the face of that evidence, NIH keeps paying people to do monstrous things.

*Britten, Kenneth H., Michael N. Shadlen, William T. Newsome, and J. Anthony Movshon. "The analysis of visual motion: a comparison of neuronal and psychophysical performance." Journal of Neuroscience 12, no. 12 (1992): 4745-4765.

Friday, May 5, 2017

The Henry Vilas Zoo's Mission

Madison, Wisconsin has a reputation as a progressive city; it sort of is, in some ways. Madison was the birthplace of the Progressive Movement. Madison is home to The Progressive magazine and the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Madison is gay-friendly. Many of its restaurants point out their vegan options. There is a local political party called Progressive Dane (Madison is in Dane County). The library and the services it provides are awesome. Madison/Dane County has significant green space and some nice largish parks that include some wild areas. Madison/Dane County has some very nice dog parks. Dane County has also banned the exhibition of elephants, though whether the future ban is enforced remains to be seen. There is a lot for nominally liberal-leaning people to like about Madison. But everything is relative.

To my mind, any measure of enlightened thinking, of progressive policies, must include a community’s treatment of its animals. By this metric many nominally progressive/liberal communities fail miserably.

In the case of Madison, it is easy to point to examples of terrible abuse supported by the city and county. Madison is home to Covance, one of, perhaps the the largest single consumer of animals in the country, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, one of top recipients in the country of tax dollars for experiments on animals. Additionally, the city pays the USDA to round up adult Canada geese and their goslings and kill them. The city has paid trappers to drown beavers. The county permits trapping in some parks.

And there is the Henry Vilas Zoo, located in Madison, but paid for by county taxpayers at-large. The zoo says, “Our mission at the Henry Vilas Zoo is to conserve and protect the wonders of the living natural world and to help build understanding between people and animals by promoting conservation and providing a high quality recreational and educational experience to our visitors.”

Mission statements are rarely dashed off; writing and agreeing to one commonly motivate significant discussion by the members of a board of directors. Mission statements are commonly pointed to in board meetings, retreats, and in decision-making. At least they should be and have been in my experience. It appears to me that either the Henry Vilas Zoo isn’t fulfilling its mission or maybe not even trying to.

Let’s vivisect the zoo’s claims:

1. “Our mission ... is to conserve... the wonders of the living natural world...”. According to Google, conserve, in this sense, means: “to protect (something, especially an environmentally or culturally important place or thing) from harm or destruction.”

Setting aside the plain simple fact that the zoo’s activities and practices involve (in any way whatsoever) only an infinitesimally small sliver of the wonders of the living natural world, the second part of the meaning of conserve is “to protect (something, especially an environmentally or culturally important place or thing) from harm or destruction.”

I think it is important in any debate or criticism like this one, to state fairly what one believes to be the belief and sense of those who hold the other position. I believe that the zoo would argue that its involvement with species survival plans is evidence that it is working to conserve some things -- some species, thus trying to meet to some degree its mission.

2. “... to help build understanding between people and animals by promoting conservation...”. This is the passage that led me to write earlier that mission statements are not typically dashed off.

Presumably, the meaning was not intended to be obscure; it seems reasonable to take it as written. Were I to say that there was an understanding between you and me, it would mean that I believed that both of us understood what the other intended and were agreeable to it. But in this context, the notion is altogether silly. A few animals coming to the understanding that humans are the reason for their captivity can hardly be what the authors intended.

I suspect that they intended to say, or meant that, zoo visitors would gain a better understanding of animals.

But visitors don’t get a particularly better understanding of animals. To a very large extent, they are misled and come away with ideas about the animals they see that are far afield from the truth. They walk away with a misunderstanding of animals.

There are badgers, prairie dogs, and bison at the zoo. But seeing them is little different that seeing a stuffed specimen. The animals at the zoo are unable to do what badgers, prairie dogs, and bison normally do. If the zoo’s mission is to increase an understanding of animals, it would do an exponentially better job by having small theaters throughout the property where people could learn much more authentic things about animals. For instance:

There are gibbons at the zoo. But what can one really learn about gibbons by seeing them in the tiny cage they are kept in? Nothing like this:

or this:

And this is the case with all the live-animal displays; visitors aren’t learning too much more than they could by seeing a stuffed specimen. An animal removed from their natural environment, unable to engage in the full range of their normal behaviors isn’t really an example of the species anymore that someone in a prison cell is an informative authentic example of Homo sapiens.

The zoo’s claim that it is conserving the natural wonders of the world only makes sense in the context of natural wonders that are at risk of being lost. We don’t need to conserve granite for instance, since it is so common and not at risk of being lost. Likewise, there is no conservation value in caging and displaying prairie dogs; they aren’t at risk of being lost.

The notion of breeding endangered or threatened species simply to have some on display begs the question of whether it is a good thing to save a few members of a species. In some cases, protecting threatened and endangered species leads to protections for many other species and wild areas. In the Pacific northwest, protection for marbled murrelets and spotted owls resulted in large tracts of old growth forest being protected from logging. All the species that comprise those areas were protected. That seems like a good thing to me; we have only a handful of these areas left. If we don’t protect them, we will lose them.

Putting owls and murrelets in zoos would not have benefited them. People seeing them in cages would have learned almost nothing about them. It seems that the way to preserve threatened and endangered species is to preserve and protect their natural environment; that’s real conservation.

Collecting, breeding and trading in wild animals is a fairly common fetish of sorts; it can get dressed up and gentrified at times by being associated with government or business in some way that provides financial support, but for every “legitimate” zoo there are many others that provide insight into the sort of people who are drawn to this profession and hobby. See for instance, National Geographic’s article, "Exotic Pets".

Not everyone associated with a zoo is necessarily a bad person. In the case of “legitimate” zoos, an aura of respectability and public support by authorities leads many people to believe that they are good things, wholesome for the entire family. We tend to be easily influenced by authority and rarely engage in critical thinking about the status quo. Most zoo-goers spend only a moment in front of a display; the brutal boredom endured by the animals doesn’t cross their minds. A visit to the zoo is for most just a brief diversion at the animals’ incalculable expense.