Harvard’s primate research center, which has been investigated for animal welfare violations in the deaths of four monkeys, will be largely shut down by 2015, Harvard Medical School said Tuesday. The university cited a tough economic climate for research funding and a shift in long-term strategies.
The announcement stunned people inside and outside the institution. Harvard had invested significant resources in the New England Primate Research Center in Southborough to correct care and oversight problems that resulted in the monkey deaths between June 2010 and February 2012.
US Department of Agriculture inspectors found numerous violations of animal welfare rules after the deaths, an embarrassment that caused consternation across the university. But medical school leaders said the decision to close the 51-year-old facility, where about 200 people work, was unrelated to its problems.
“It’s very, very disturbing, disappointing, disheartening, shocking,” said Nancy Haigwood, director of the Oregon National Primate Research Center, who was informed by the Harvard center’s director, Dr. Paul Johnson. “I think it’s going to be very, very difficult to imagine that the investigators impacted by this decision will be able to keep up their momentum.”
Harvard Medical School administrators and government officials said they will find ways for scientists with active federal grants to continue their work. But the pace of research is likely to be slowed by the need to strike up new collaborations, look for jobs, or spend time setting up laboratories.
David Knipe, a professor of microbiology and molecular genetics at Harvard Medical School who has used monkeys in his AIDS vaccine research, said the center had built a strong team of researchers with expertise on a nonhuman primate version of the virus that causes AIDS. Knipesaid some scientists have already left.
“For us in the virology community, it’s a big loss,” Knipe said of the closing, “and it’s going to continue because we’re going to lose that community, that group of colleagues.”
The decision was announced to a packed room at the Southborough facility. Kim Van Savage, who works in human resources at the center, said there was a wide range of emotions, including tears.
“I think people did feel that they’d really turned a corner,” Van Savage said. “They’ve been through a lot of change; they’ve been through a lot of scrutiny. But a lot of work has been done at the center . . . so I think at this point, it took everybody by surprise.”
Medical school leaders said they were working on a transition plan to help the 20 faculty, 32 postdoctoral researchers and graduate students, and 150 staff members find new positions while continuing their jobs to support the animals and research as the center moves to close over the next year or two.
They will also need to relocate close to 2,000 monkeys, perhaps to some of the seven other national primate research centers. None of the animals will be euthanized, medical school officials said.
It is uncertain how many jobs will be found for staff members and where the animals will end up, given that many research centers and universities face the same economic pressures that led Harvard to make its decision.
Administrators said in an interview Monday that the school’s leadership decided not to reapply for a five-year federal grant that provides the base funding, a decision made in consultation with Drew Faust, Harvard’s president.
“The decision that we made was a strategic long-term decision and not based in any way on the problems we had,” said Jeffrey Flier, dean of the medical school dean.
“The school would have had to make considerable investments,” he said. “Those are investments that would not have been able to go in other directions. And when we looked at everything, including the more difficult external funding environment that we all face,” this was the right decision.
This year, the primate center projects it will receive $27 million in US funding, but universities are bracing for reductions in federal support because of recently enacted spending cuts. The medical school estimates that over the next five years, the primate center would demand an investment of $20 million to $25 million from the school.
Dr. William Chin, executive dean for research, said the decision also focused on “how the center fits into the school’s basic priorities and overall goals.”
A Harvard Medical School animal facility with 42 primates in the Longwood Medical Area will continue to operate.
Jay Kaplan, director of the center for comparative medicine research at the Wake Forest School of Medicine and one of the job candidates during the primate center’s search for a director last year, said the expenses of running the facility are significant, including utility bills and the cost of updating primate housing.
He noted that the distance between the facility and the main medical campus in Boston kept the two entities from being as closely knit as they could have been.
The primate center “didn’t have the name Harvard in it, and it was run for many years as a rather insular facility,” Kaplan said. “So the question you have to ask is, is Harvard really looking to more clearly consolidate their investment and activities and not be worried about this satellite facility 30 miles away?”
James Anderson — a deputy director at the National Institutes of Health, which provides the major funding for the primate center — said Harvard notified the agency of its plans about a week ago.
“This is Harvard’s decision,” Anderson said in an interview. “We did not expect it.”
Animal rights activists hailed the closure.
“I think it is a sign that things are moving in the right direction,” said Kathleen Conlee, vice president for animal research issues at the Humane Society of the United States. “We’ve seen primate research in the US continue to go up over the years.”
Deborah Kochevar, dean of the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, was surprised. She said Harvard seemed committed to fixing the problems and to the future when she and a team of specialists reported on its operations last summer.
“One of the points that the panel that I served on made strongly is that we believed that as one of the oldest primate research centers in the US, as an affiliate of Harvard, that the NEPRC was really looked up to as a model,” Kochevar said. “I think I’m safe in saying the unanimous consensus of our panel was that this was a very important resource for science, as well as for Harvard.”
Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @carolynyjohnson.