Editorial | Published:

A slippery slope

Nature volume 462, page 699 (10 December 2009) | Download Citation

Animal-research policies should be guided by moral consensus, not by arbitrary decisions.

In 2006, building on its strong veterinary-research programmes, Oklahoma State University (OSU) in Stillwater opened a biosafety-level-3 laboratory to work on high-risk zoonotic diseases and other pathogens. But, this October, OSU president Burns Hargis abruptly cancelled an anthrax-vaccine project that would have used the facilities because the baboon subjects involved would have been killed at the end of the study (see page 706).

Although Hargis has the authority to make such decisions, this action seems arbitrary and ad hoc. The project was approved by its funding agency, the US National Institutes of Health, and by the university's animal-use committee. Moreover, there was nothing untoward in the project's plan to kill the animals; after they have been infected with high-risk pathogens, they cannot be uninfected.

Speculation was rife on campus that Hargis acted under pressure from Madeleine Pickens, the wife of oil magnate and OSU benefactor T. Boone Pickens. Earlier this year, she complained about how animals were used in surgical training at the university veterinary centre. The OSU, which was to receive a US$5-million donation from her, has since changed its policy on training procedures.

Spokespeople for Madeleine Pickens and Hargis have denied that she had any role in the anthrax decision. Hargis insists that, despite complaints from faculty members about not being consulted, he did speak to Stephen McKeever, the OSU vice-president for research, and checked the report of the animal-use committee before making his ruling.

Imposing such a decision on the fly sets a bad precedent. Animal-research policies need to be guided by a moral compass — a consensus on what people find acceptable and unacceptable. Precisely because this issue is so morally and emotionally fraught, decisions by administrators should involve careful consultation with researchers as well as with all other members of university communities.

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https://doi.org/10.1038/462699b

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