The mandate from Congress was for the NIH to “critically evaluate the ethical policies and processes surrounding all nonhuman primate research” and to do so “in consultation with outside experts, to ensure it has appropriate justification for animal research protocols…” This mandate clearly signals an expectation that the ethics of continuing to use nonhuman primates (NHPs) in biomedical research will be up for debate. In announcing its September 7 workshop, the NIH signals it will not examine the ethics of research with NHPs – which would reasonably include considering whether such research can be justified at all — but will rather maintain the status quo and evade the Congressional mandate with respect to the use of NHPs. This intent is clearly indicated in the blog post “Ensuring Continued Responsible Research with Non-Human Primates,” which maintains that current welfare regulations are adequate, and that the continuation of NHP research should be ensured, based on past (sometimes long past) contributions to science.
The NIH appears unwilling to engage in critical self-reflection or ethical discussion, or to consider the actual meaning of “responsible research.” Given current, well-supported empirical evidence about NHPs, it cannot be responsible or ethical to rely on outdated, poorly informed animal welfare regulations, or to justify NHP research by looking to the past. The NIH must be impartial and forward-looking, both in its science and its ethics, so that it might support the best biomedical research and maintain the highest ethical standards. This mandate is an opportunity for the NIH to do both, by convening ethicists – as the IOM did in its report in its 2011 report on chimpanzees – to participate in honest, impartial discussion of ethical and responsible science involving NHPs.
L. Syd M Johnson, PhD
Department of Humanities, Michigan Tech