Secrecy at the University of Wisconsin, Madison

From all-creatures.org
Animal Rights Articles

Moo-ving people toward compassionate living

Visit our Home Page
Write us with your comments

Secrecy at the University of Wisconsin, Madison

From Madison Monkeys
January 2011

A public university's use of public funds should be open and transparent. The university's secrecy strongly suggests that they believe the public would be appalled if it learned the truth.

Certain details of the University of Wisconsin, Madison's use of monkeys remain secret. Documents received in response to state open records requests are often heavily redacted. (Here's one example.) The university refuses to provide copies of some documents altogether. One reason they give for this secrecy is the safety of the researchers, as if activists would go berserk if they learned the actual names of the people experimenting on the animals.

The names of essentially all the researchers, photographs of many of them, the location of their offices, links to many of their published papers – giving some detail to their use of animals – this is all made readily available to the public on the university's web pages.

[Prove this to yourself. Visit NIH RePORT Expenditures and Results (RePORTER) query tool. Enter the word primate into the "Search Terms" window. Select Wisconsin from the State list. Click "Submit Query" at the bottom. Choose a name from the resulting list.. Try "COE, CHRISTOPHER L.". Copy and paste the name into Google. Click on the first hit.]

So the UW's secrecy can't have anything whatsoever to do with protecting researchers' identities. Sometimes you hear that they are worried about the identities of the graduate students, but many lab websites also have their names and photographs on line. Check out the Basso lab - <http://www.physiology.wisc.edu/mblab/people.asp>.

So any claim about protecting researchers' identities is a falsehood or else an oddly ignorant perception of reality. Or maybe the people making these claims are just plain dumb.

Another reason given for the secrecy is proprietary rights. They make the claim that the data has commercial value that would be reduced if the public could learn what is going on. But the research is publicly funded. Even years after papers have been published, data gathered during the study remains a closely guarded secret.

Another reason the university gives is the public interest. We have been told that it is in the public's interest not to release the data to the public. They won't even release federally-required documentation that details what is going to be done to the animals without first censoring large sections. Orwell meets Kafka.

Why the secrecy?

One reason for the secrecy might be the university's own fear that the public reaction to a fair look at the details of the lives and fate of the animals purchased or bred for use in the university's labs could cause a significant reduction in public support and might lead to a loss of funding. The university doesn't really believe that it has the public's support.

There must be other reasons, but the recognition that what is being done in the labs is beyond the norms of public acceptance seems to be the common reason that laboratories across the nation work so hard to keep the details of the animals' lives as secret as possible.

In 2002 we learned that Ned Kalin, Ruth Benca, and others had made videotapes of monkeys held in restraint chairs overnight.

Some details of the associated experiments are available in published scientific papers and in the popular press. The papers and the articles state that the monkeys were videotaped. The authors of these published papers try to quantify their observations of the videotapes, but without the tapes in hand, who can really say whether their observations are accurate?

The university refused to provide us or news reporters with a copy of these video records. They defended their refusal with the argument that the public's interest in keeping the tapes secret outweighs the public's right to view the videos.

But, even if the public had been able to eventually view the videotapes and even if a public outcry had arisen, past practice suggests that the university would have said something to the effect that such things are no longer being done in the labs.

---------------

Since writing about the videotapes above, the situation has been resolved. The UW announced that as soon as legally permissible after one of our repeated requests, they destroyed these videos. In fact, they destroyed not just the videos we had requested, but 60 boxes of videos. These videos must have been absolutely damning.

--------------

Federal law – the Animal Welfare Act – requires a local committee to approve research methods before any experiment using animals begins.* These committees are called Animal Care and Use Committees. The committees are comprised of researchers using animals, a lab veterinarian(s), and at least one member who is not affiliated with the university.

The university limits public attendance at these committee meetings. The public can attend the beginning of a meeting, but when discussion turns to the use of animals in specific studies, the public is usually forced to leave under threat of arrest.

Thus, the public has no opportunity to comment on what is being proposed. Proposed experiments are a secret. The public is barred from participating in any discussion about what is being planned. The public can comment only on what has already happened. This is anathema to participatory democracy.

Such secrecy extends to every facet of animal care and experimentation at the university. The details of the animals' lives and experiences are more secret that inter-office White House memos and emails, and more secret than the Bush's domestic spying campaign. The government's clandestine offshore prisons of torture seem to have a veil of secrecy associated with them similar to that cloaking the details of the monkey labs.

A public university's use of public funds should be open and transparent. The university's secrecy strongly suggests that they believe the public would be appalled if it learned the truth.


*This is a little misleading. The Animal Welfare Act requires these committees to approve the experiments only when animals of species covered by the Act are going to be used. The Act does not cover purpose-bred mice, rats, birds, any fish, reptiles, amphibians, or invertebrate animals. Mice and rats account for about 99% of all animals used. The committees are required to approve only the experiments using the remaining 1%. This 1% is the approximately 1.5 million animals used annually from species covered under the Act. In actual practice, many committees, including the UW's, spend some time considering the use of at least some non-covered species as well. They do this in order to comply with Public Health Service Regulation governing the care and use of all vertebrate species in government-sponsored experimentation.