Opinion: Hold Animal Use Committees Accountable for Their Failures

As a former committee member who now advises PETA, I believe that claims that the identities of committee members must be kept secret to protect their safety are unfounded.

Lisa Jones-Engel
Lisa Jones-Engel

Lisa Jones-Engel, PhD, is a Fulbright scholar, primate scientist and former professor at the University of Washington. She now advises People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA.org).

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Jul 27, 2022

Editor’s note: This opinion article is a response to “Opinion: Time to Take Animal Rights Harassment More Seriously” by Jim Newman of Americans for Medical Progress. 

“Trust is the foundation for ethical treatment of animals in research.” This was the response that I received in an email from a longstanding member of the University of Washington Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC), on which I also served, after another bruising public meeting. I had raised pointed questions to principal investigators about uncontrolled variables in their proposed experiments, the impact their studies would have on animal welfare and husbandry, and whether the harms inflicted upon the animals were justified by the presumed benefits to humans.  

That member said that I was confused about the role, function, and responsibilities of the IACUC and that the “internal decision processes within the OAW [Office of Animal Welfare] are not appropriate within a public forum.” The member expected me to trust in the integrity, morality, and objectivity of the principal investigators, veterinarians, and institutions; and trust the animal oversight bodies.  

I no longer serve on the University of Washington (UW) IACUC. I could no longer ignore that the IACUC was violating the public’s trust.     

The existence of IACUCs was mandated by the US Congress in amendments it made to the Animal Welfare Act of 1966 (AWA) in 1985 in response to public outrage stemming from exposés of animal abuse in academic biomedical research laboratories funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). IACUCs are charged with ensuring institutional compliance with federal animal welfare regulations and guidelines and with reviewing, approving, and monitoring all experimental use of animals at their facilities. While IACUCs derive their regulatory authority from the AWA, their nascence is directly tied to the public’s demand for increased oversight of animal use. This is particularly critical as public opposition to the use of animals for experimentation is growing and IACUC oversight hasn’t proven to be a panacea for this growing concern. One of the biggest complaints that critics have about IACUCs is that they have been turned into what they were not intended to be: committees predominantly occupied with technical and bureaucratic details rather than oversight bodies assuring the welfare and ethical use of animals in research, teaching, and toxicity testing. 

PETA’s efforts to ensure IACUCs uphold their original mandate were recently the subject of an opinion article in The Scientist by Jim Newman of Americans for Medical Progress (AMP). As a primate scientist (whose research has been covered by The Scientist), former employee of UW and the Washington National Primate Center (WaNPRC), former member of UW’s IACUC, and current advisor to PETA, I would like to correct misleading and inaccurate information included in that piece.  

Here are the facts: PETA submitted a public records request in June 2021 requesting copies of all of the IACUC appointment letters created or produced by UW institutional official(s) since January 2014. These records would include the names of all individuals appointed to the IACUC during that period and the category that they had been designated to fill (e.g., chairperson, attending veterinarian, member, scientist, nonscientist, unaffiliated) as required by the Public Health Services policy requirements for IACUC members. UW IACUC chair Jane Sullivan and other unnamed members then sued the university to block it from fulfilling that records request. The court temporarily blocked the release of the records. The case, in which PETA is an intervenor, is now pending at the Ninth Circuit.  

The composition of IACUCs is central to their effectiveness. Federal law and regulations require IACUCs to have a sufficient number of members who lack conflicts of interest. As explained in NIH guidance, at least one member of each committee cannot be a laboratory animal user or former user, and must have “no discernible ties” to the institution. The NIH also instructs institutions that at least one IACUC member, the nonscientist, should “represent the general community interests in the proper care and use of animals,” such as an “ethicist, lawyer, or member of the clergy” who can bring to a committee “a naïve attitude with regard to science and scientific activities.”  

PETA wants public bodies to be accountable to the public.

Failure to meet these criteria leads to tragic but predictable outcomes. Research has shown that IACUCs at institutions receiving the most federal funding primarily comprise animal experimenters and others with vested interests in experimentation on animals. Meanwhile, multiple federal reports have documented the failure of IACUCs generally, and the UW IACUC specifically, to safeguard animal welfare. In 2015, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which enforces the federal Animal Welfare Act, found the UW IACUC had approved major surgeries on animals even though the experimenters had not provided crucial information about invasive surgical procedures—namely, the size and location of proposed incisions and the types of devices implanted—in the proposed protocols, as required. Three animals had to be euthanized after these procedures were performed. Just last year, the federal government told UW that its record “is not indicative of a facility that is demonstrating success at preventing critical animal welfare issues.”  

Federal inspector general reports have also documented the inefficacy of the minimal government oversight of IACUCs, and most of the “oversight” that does occur is premised on the naïve assumption that IACUCs will self-report and self-regulate. One example of the consequences of this lax oversight is that nearly every month between December 2019 and March 2021, mice and/or rats in UW laboratories died of dehydration or starvation because experimenters and staff failed to meet even these most basic husbandry needs.    

Whatever oversight federal agencies and the UW IACUC provide have not been enough to mitigate UW’s appalling record of Animal Welfare Act violations, which include the deaths of monkeys by starvation, dehydration, veterinary error, strangulation, choking to death on their own vomit, and more. Grant progress reports prepared for NIH and obtained by PETA through public records requests reveal that in one eight-month period in 2019 and 2020, UW’s National Primate Research Center, including its breeding facility in Arizona, which held a combined total of about 1,200 nonhuman primates at the time, had to treat 323 traumatic injuries (such as broken limbs and teeth), more than 200 cases of gastrointestinal problems, 149 cases of significant weight loss, 19 cases of rectal prolapse, and a dozen implant abnormalities following experimental procedures. 

Hiding the identities and affiliations of IACUC members removes a necessary lever of accountability. This is especially true of IACUCs at public institutions funded by taxpayers. The UW IACUC is, by state law and judicial decree, a governing body of a Washington state agency. UW has one of the largest animal use programs in the country, with 500 active research protocols supported by approximately $250 million per year in grants. Yet Dr. Sullivan has essentially confirmed PETA’s suspicions that the UW IACUC lacks sufficient impartiality. In a recent court filing, she argued not that PETA was mistaken in its analysis of nonaffiliated and nonscientist UW IACUC members’ credentials, but instead adopted the view, contradicted by plain regulatory text, that “previous UW employment of an individual or their spouse . . . is irrelevant.” Dr. Sullivan also ignored instances PETA raised in its court filings of UW designating donors and laboratory animal users as nonaffiliated IACUC members. Finally, she confirmed that the executive director of the Northwest Association for Biomedical Research, who cannot possibly be described as bringing to the table the requisite “naïve attitude” toward animal experimentation, had nevertheless been designated as a nonscientist IACUC member because his “training is in business.” An IACUC that is dominated by animal experimenters, institutional employees, and “community members” whose livelihoods are linked to animal research can lead to committee bias, groupthink, and the adoption of procedural workarounds—such as a reliance on review of aspects of protocols by designated members rather than the full committee—that relieve perceived regulatory burden.  

This imbalance also undermines the public’s confidence in the objectivity and integrity of the animal research review process. Nameless, faceless officials with vested interests or biases making decisions that can result in poor science, inhumane treatment of animals, and wasted taxpayer dollars is antithetical to democracy, plain and simple. That’s why the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 16 other media organizations, including the Seattle Times, have filed an amicus brief supporting PETA’s request for information about the identity of committee members. 

There are other reasons for thinking that this lawsuit is about nothing more than blocking the public from being able to evaluate whether the UW IACUC is legally constituted, and forestalling any consequences if the answer turns out to be no. A baseless premise of the lawsuit, echoed by Mr. Newman, is that UW IACUC members face imminent risk of harm were PETA to learn members’ identities. But UW gave PETA the names and contact information for most members of UW’s IACUC in response to other records requests more than a year ago. Contrary to Mr. Newman’s stated concern that IACUC members could be subject to “targeting and harassment” if identified, nothing has happened to those identified individuals. The only members whose identities are shielded from PETA at this point are the most recent appointees, whose identities would establish whether the UW IACUC is currently legally constituted.  

Mr. Newman uses loaded language to trump up the scare factor and bolster this baseless harassment argument. For instance, PETA did not “aggressively” try to obtain the names of the IACUC members, as the piece contends. We filed an open records request and I followed up politely during a public meeting. 

The piece repeats outrageous and untrue claims of intimidation from animal rights activists. PETA has investigated each example that committee members—including some speaking anonymously—made as part of their lawsuit. They all fall apart under the slightest scrutiny. One typical example: Plaintiffs and Mr. Newman suggest UW IACUC members were “challenged” by members of the public who called them “sadistic” and “Nazis” during public meetings. In one of the incidents he cites, the speaker was a mild-mannered retired UW professor who had personally observed UW laboratories and politely used his two minutes to recite a famous aphorism from Nobel laureate and refugee of Nazi-occupied Poland Isaac Bashevis Singer: “In relation to [animals], all people are Nazis; for them it is an eternal Treblinka.”  

Whether you agree or disagree with this comparison, our society is predicated on the value and right of free expression. UW’s IACUC is a public committee at a public university that must be open to scrutiny so that those who are concerned with the treatment of animals, good science, and the use of taxpayer funds can be assured that it is operating properly and as required. Mr. Newman also distorts the facts by suggesting that any federal oversight has “verified the UW committee is in full compliance” with federal guidelines. But neither the USDA nor the NIH actually oversees such committees. There is no compliance check that determines that the IACUC has properly appointed its members. And in 2021, the USDA actually told UW that evaluating the credentials of a member filling the role meant to bring a “naïve” perspective to the committee—but who, as mentioned above, in fact is the executive director of a pro–animal experimentation lobbying group—is “not under the purview of this agency.”                 

Wipe away the scare tactics, obfuscations, and misrepresentations by the animal experimental lobbying industry, and the truth becomes clear: PETA wants public bodies to be accountable to the public, as is required under Washington state law. If we prevail, it will not be just for PETA’s benefit, but for the benefit of democracy itself.