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What’s worse than a cruel animal experiment? A cruel and fake animal experiment.

Raising the consequences for animal testing experiments gone wrong.

A piglet stands on its hind legs to look through bars and over a metal partition of its cage, toward the viewer. Roger Kingbird/We Animals Media
Marina Bolotnikova is a staff editor for Vox’s Future Perfect section. Before joining Vox, she reported on factory farming for national outlets including the Guardian, the Intercept, and elsewhere.

Last December, in the wake of animal cruelty allegations against Elon Musk’s brain chip startup Neuralink, Vox’s Kenny Torrella wrote about a concept he called “the moral math of animal testing”: the view held by many people that trading some amount of animal suffering is worth it if it can save enough human lives by advancing medicine.

Experimentation on live animals is a divisive, morally charged subject. Slightly more than half of Americans say they oppose using animals in scientific research, according to a 2018 Pew survey, but it depends a lot on how you phrase the question and who is asking. When asked by the biomedical industry whether they support “the humane use of animals” to develop “lifesaving medicines,” many more people say they do, or aren’t sure. These gaps reflect the public’s lack of understanding of how vivisection works in general: Most people don’t know whether animal testing is humane, effective, or necessary, nor do they always know how to define those terms.

Not everyone will agree with my view of vivisection, which is that it’s unjustifiable in nearly all circumstances. But I would think most people will agree that animal experiments should have to clear an especially high bar — that they have to be truly necessary for saving human lives and irreplaceable with non-animal methods.

That is, unfortunately, not how animal testing in the US works at all. Scientists harm and kill animals for all sorts of studies that have nothing to do with saving human lives. Researchers at Oregon Health & Science University, for example, have forced prairie voles to drink alcohol to test whether it makes them cheat on their partners. A Harvard neuroscientist recently came under fire for separating caged mother monkeys from their babies and giving them surrogate stuffed animals to bond with, thus demonstrating, she wrote in a top scientific journal, that “infant/mother bonds may be triggered by soft touch.”

The worst kind of fraud

Animal experimentation is also not immune to outright fraud, a problem that’s “disturbingly common” in science, as Vox’s Kelsey Piper wrote in June. Last week, federal investigators found that William Armstead, a former professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s medical school, had faked the results of multiple federally funded studies that involved cutting open piglets’ skulls and inducing brain injuries. The studies were meant to test drugs for treating brain injuries in humans. (Armstead left the university while he was under investigation for this misconduct.)

Some of Armstead’s fabrications, which included relabeling results from past studies as new ones, appear designed to make a drug his team was studying look more effective, Ivan Oransky, co-founder of Retraction Watch — a blog that tracks retractions of scientific papers — told the Philadelphia Inquirer last week. Armstead’s team doctored 51 scientific figures across five published studies, three federal grant applications, and other documents. The faked data renders the research useless; it’s now been retracted from journals and can’t be incorporated into future work. “A bunch of pigs were subjected to some pretty terrible conditions for no reason,” Oransky told the Inquirer.

Armstead now faces a seven-year ban on conducting federally funded research, a penalty that’s relatively rare in its severity. But his case isn’t an isolated one.

Last year, a pivotal 2006 mouse study, which had been thought to shed light on the pathology of Alzheimer’s disease and shaped years of federally funded research, was credibly accused of being fraudulent and remains under investigation.

Also last year, federal officials found Deepak Kaushal, then-head of the federally funded Southwest National Primate Research Center in San Antonio, to have falsified results in a published study of a tuberculosis treatment tested on monkeys, and used those results in two NIH grant applications. Kaushal was placed under a one-year supervision period — the lightest imaginable slap on the wrist — with no lasting consequences for his ability to experiment on animals. He also, according to initial reports, got to keep his job as director of the lab. After criticism from some in the research community and animal advocates, he was later demoted from that position; it’s unclear whether he’ll be reinstated after his supervision period.

The price of suffering

All these revelations should raise alarms about how misconduct is handled in research involving animal testing. When a top primate researcher is allowed to keep experimenting on monkeys after falsifying data, it sends a message to everyone in the research community that recklessly handling animal experiments, while temporarily embarrassing, may not be that big a deal.

“The NIH tends to give anybody on their pay line the benefit of the doubt,” neuroscientist Katherine Roe, who worked at NIH for more than eight years and is now chief of PETA’s science advancement and outreach division, told me. (PETA, despite its reputation, has a top-notch team of scientists challenging unethical animal research). “The penalties for research fraud are not what they should be.”

To shift the incentive structure, we need better federal regulation that raises the cost of torturing animals for botched experiments. Right now, the consequences for misconduct in federally funded research don’t take into account whether the work involved animal testing, Roe said. Federal research regulations could be amended so that scientists found responsible for misconduct in work involving vulnerable populations, including non-human animals, be permanently barred from testing on them in future federally sponsored research, a change that’s been proposed by PETA, explained Emily Trunnell, a senior scientist for the organization.

That would be a good start. But it would require the authorities who oversee science to view the animal experiments themselves, and not just lying about their results, as morally implicated, something the research community has been loath to do because it threatens to undermine the whole endeavor of animal testing.

On a higher level, we have to start seeing it as the public’s right and duty to make democratic decisions about whether and how animals are used in scientific research, especially when our money is paying for it. Scientists are an exalted class, often allowed to self-regulate, but their expertise in a narrow subject matter shouldn’t let them overrule democratic governance of research ethics. Ethics belongs to us all. And the public expects a much higher bar than too many animal researchers currently set for themselves.

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