SINCE OPENING its New England Primate Research Center in 1966, Harvard University has insisted it follows high ethical practices, but won’t publicly detail what those practices are. The reason, officials say, is fear of angering animal-rights extremists who sometimes resort to violence. Plus, their primary focus, they add, is the center’s groundbreaking research into cancers, drug addiction, AIDS, and Parkinson’s Disease - not winning over the public.
However, mainstream animal-rights activists were right to raise questions about the facility last month after the US Department of Agriculture cited it for the death of a primate last October. The center insists it is rigorously reassessing its procedures to ensure that no primates are unnecessarily harmed. But because of time constraints and fear of extremists - one animal-rights terrorist sits on the FBI’s most wanted list - the center won’t say much more.
That’s not quite good enough. While the safety of its researchers is understandably Harvard’s top concern, there ought to be ways to respond specifically to a public report from the USDA without inflaming violence. Indeed, Harvard’s lack of transparency probably invites more suspicion than it dispels.
The incident last October was the second questionable death at the primate center in the past two years. In 2010, a deceased primate was found only after its cage had been washed - with the animal still in it. An autopsy found that it had died before the cage washing, not as a result of it. Last October, a second primate died after undergoing an imaging procedure at the lab. The USDA is still looking into whether the center’s staff or procedures played a role in that death. The investigation comes at a sensitive time. Last September, a new leadership team was charged with reorganizing the center - which suggests that some problems existed.
Public support for animal testing hinges on the assumption that researchers treat their test subjects as humanely as possible. Negative reviews from the USDA undermine that support. At the very least, Harvard should respond fully and publicly. The public generally supports life-saving research. More information could help solidify that support - and decrease the threat of violence that keeps the institution tight-lipped in the first place.