Officials fear violent reprisals from a reinvigorated animal-rights movement.
Administrators at Oklahoma State University (OSU) in Stillwater have abruptly cancelled an anthrax vaccine study that would have killed dozens of baboons.
The project, funded by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) and led by Shinichiro Kurosawa of Boston University School of Medicine in Massachusetts, had been approved by the OSU animal-care committee in September and was awaiting review by the biosafety committee when OSU president Burns Hargis vetoed it in October, calling the study "controversial".
Kurosawa had hoped to use the OSU animal facility because it has the required level of biosafety containment for anthrax. "As guest scientists at OSU, we are obliged to follow their policies, and it is unfortunate that we cannot fully complete our research there at this time," Kurosawa says. Along with collaborators at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation in Oklahoma City, the University of Oklahoma in Norman and the University of Chicago in Illinois, he planned to investigate the biochemical pathways that lead to death following anthrax infection, and to test an anthrax vaccine.
Some faculty members have suggested that the decision to cancel the study might be linked to pressure from Madeleine Pickens, the wife of oil magnate and OSU benefactor T. Boone Pickens. Madeleine Pickens had previously expressed disapproval of surgical training procedures involving animals in the university's veterinary school. Spokespeople for both Pickens and the university deny the suggestion. Hargis defended his decision in the Tulsa World newspaper, emphasizing that 124 animals could have been killed on campus.
"There are regrettably some violent acts committed by animal-rights groups," says OSU vice-president of research Stephen McKeever, "and the president felt we should take our breath here and not do this project just yet." McKeever says the decision does not indicate a change in institutional policy, but that future proposals for primate studies will be considered in consultation with researchers, the OSU animal-care committee and his administrators. Indeed, for several faculty members, the biggest upset is not the decision itself but the fact that it was made without consulting them.
Veterinary researcher Richard Eberle, who was an administrative liaison for the study, believes that the affair might give the impression that the university is no longer a reliable research partner. He notes that two major proposals for OSU-based primate research, involving some of the same institutions, are pending at the NIH. The NIH Office of the Director said in a statement that institutions are expected "to complete NIH supported projects as requested, approved and funded".
The dispute comes during a time of heightened activity by animal-rights activists, including firebombings at two University of California campuses. Although few institutions have policies that prohibit primate research, not many are keen to establish new primate programmes, says Dario Ringach, a neurobiologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who stopped working on primates because of pressure from activists. "It is changing the kind of work people will do in the future," he says. "If students come to me interested in primate research, I would tell them to think about other things."