An animal rights watchdog group has asked the
U.S. Department of Agriculture to expand its investigation into
Northwestern's research practices, calling for an inquiry into
the projects of seven NU researchers who work with primates in a
complaint filed last week.
The Cincinnati-based Stop Animal Exploitation
Now charges that the seven researchers -- Mark Segraves, Roger
Ratcliff, James Baker, Barry Peterson, Lee Miller, Ronald
Kettner and James Houk -- perform experiments on primates that
involve extensive surgical procedures, such as screwing
restraining bars and recording cylinders into skulls, and and
limiting access to water.
Although those practices are not unusual,
Michael Budkie, the animal rights group's executive director,
said in a letter to the USDA that NU failed to categorize the
research as "potentially painful or stressful." Failing to
disclose the nature of the experiments would violate the Animal
Welfare Act, Budkie said.
"Northwestern is being dishonest about the
type of research they are doing," he said. "Using bolting
devices and limiting access to water does cause pain and
distress to the primate. If we did that to a human, we would
assume they were suffering from pain and distress. There is no
reason to assume it would affect a primate any differently."
Stop Animal Exploitation Now's complaint comes
on the heels of a turbulent year for NU's Office of Research.
The USDA and National Institutes of Health are
in the middle of investigating some of the university's research
practices, including mistreatment of pigs and monkeys,
insufficient training and faulty record-keeping. In February, NU
paid $5.5 million to settle a lawsuit brought by the federal
government for allegedly misreporting the amount of time spent
on federally funded projects.
One of the professors named in the letter --
who maintained that his projects never have been investigated
before -- said he thinks Stop Animal Exploitation Now only chose
to examine his primate work because of the recent media
attention surrounding NU's research.
"It's a shame, but it's not unexpected given
the news story," said physiology Prof. Barry Peterson, who is
based in the Feinberg School of Medicine. "The actual problems
were minor and only involved paperwork, but now I'm going to
have to keep my eye out for the USDA."
The other six researchers, as well as
officials in NU's Office of Research, did not return phone calls
made last week. Vice President for University Relations Alan
Cubbage was out of town and unavailable for comment.
Research administrators have taken steps in
recent months to ensure researchers do a better job of complying
with the federal standards.
The university set up a committee to oversee
research reporting, allocated $1.8 million to the effort and
hired an outside consulting group to oversee the changes. In a
May 8 interview, David Johnson, associate vice president for
research, told The Daily that problems plaguing the university
have been corrected.
"I don't think the feds were concerned that we
had an operation that had systemwide problems with animal
issues," Johnson said. "The scale of it was not such that they
shut us down immediately."
"If the USDA came in today, there wouldn't be
anything like the issues last year," he said. "Northwestern has
been very responsive, and the criticism has been very
An official with the USDA said his
organization isn't required to investigate the new complaint
from the animal rights group. But the USDA has dealt with Stop
Animal Exploitation Now in the past. In 2001 the group filed the
largest official complaint in USDA history, accusing 50
nationally-known laboratories of animal research abuses.
"When we receive complaints from everyone, we
examine it and follow it up, but that doesn't mean anything will
come of it," said Jim Rogers, a USDA spokesman. "We get a lot of
letters from watchdog groups. But anytime we open an
investigation, we have to first gather our own evidence."
Budkie said he realizes a USDA investigation
might only result in a monetary fine, but he hopes even a small
punishment would help bring NU in line.
"The USDA power in this area is very limited,"
he said. "To fine a laboratory out of existence would be a long
and drawn out process. But it is our opinion that NU has
violated the law by not reporting their experiments correctly. I
would like to see these (primate) research protocols at least
temporarily suspended, if not formally terminated."