Public opinion and the ethics of primate brain research

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Sir

Several issues in your News story 'German authority halts primate work' (Nature 455, 1159; 2008) call for clarification. Freedom of research is written into German basic law, but so is animal protection. This reflects concerns in society at large about the ethics of subjecting animals to pain and distress in research, as well as in farming and for entertainment. Even a prominent scientist such as Andreas Kreiter must justify his use of animals.

Although Kreiter refers to the ethical judgement by Bremen's senate of health as “purely arbitrary”, it is backed by a political majority in the Bremen Senate as well as by the majority of Bremen's citizens, as confirmed in petitions and opinion polls.

You say that “the ruling ignores a positive judgement rendered last year by an expert commission comprising scientists and representatives of animal-welfare organizations”. But the commission restricted itself to assessing the scientific merits of Kreiter's research, not the ethical issues — thereby failing in part of its mandate, which expressly included ethical issues.

Also, there was only a single animal-welfare specialist among the five members of this commission; the remainder were scientists who conduct brain research in primates or breed them for research. The previous year, one of them had himself been denied permission, on ethical grounds, to conduct invasive brain research. Moreover, you imply that the animal-welfare specialist also approved the monkey experiments. Nothing could be further from the truth.

This is not the first time that the expert group's judgement has been misrepresented to the media by scientists and university officials. Again and again the German Animal Welfare Federation has been forced to try and correct the mistaken impression that experts in science, ethics and animal welfare unanimously endorsed Kreiter's project.

Kreiter's failure to explain satisfactorily to the public exactly what he is doing is seriously undermining his credibility, and that of scientists in general. Insisting that the ethical concerns are unreasonable and that the constitutional mandate of animal protection is an undemocratic assault on academic liberty deepens the antagonism between town and gown.

You quote Stefan Treue as saying he “just can't see why what's perfectly fine in one place should be unethical in another”. In fact, monkey-brain research much like Kreiter's in the level of suffering it causes has been prohibited in Munich, Berlin and Zurich.

Kreiter's centre for primate research in its present form is now in jeopardy. He should face the fact that ethical standards have evolved since he started this work and that he has lost touch with the majority of his fellow citizens.

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German, U. Public opinion and the ethics of primate brain research. Nature 456, 443 (2008) doi:10.1038/456443b

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