Will Harvard Primate Laboratory Change Its Modus Operandi?

by Michele Cunneen

Multiple serious and disturbing Animal Welfare Act citations by USDA veterinary inspectors at Harvard’s New England Primate Research Center (NEPRC) were reported in the Spring 2012 AWI Quarterly. In June, according to The Boston Globe, the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care International put Harvard on probation.

In March, the dean of the Harvard Medical School (HMS), Dr. Jeffrey S. Flier, requested a review of the management and care of animals in experiments by a seven-member independent panel composed of industry experts in primates, animal program overhaul, business functions, and laboratory animal medicine. In early August, the review panel’s executive summary, including eight recommendations, was released and immediately accepted by the dean. The recommendations are as follows:

  • Appoint an Attending Veterinarian and a biosafety officer dedicated to the NEPRC as part of a general move towards permanent, stable NEPRC leadership by individuals with the knowledge, experience and communication skills necessary to build a cooperative, collegial team.
  • Create a comprehensive multi-level training and career development program, including a team-based work model to enhance organizational development and increase optimal staff interactions and cross-disciplinary accountability.
  • Assess critically the structure, charge, scope and composition of existing NEPRC committees and consider the need for new approaches to internal oversight and governance.
  • Encourage broad-based identification of and open communication about problems, and active involvement in problem solving. This should be accomplished through review and revision of existing policies as well as employee education and training.
  • Establish a NEPRC-specific IACUC [Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee] subcommittee as part of a general move towards improving the interface between the IACUC and the NEPRC.
  • Ensure the continued involvement of the IACUC in the review and approval of NEPRC animal care standard operating procedures prior to implementation.
  • Define the IACUC’s responsibilities to reflect clearly its oversight, as opposed to management, responsibilities.
  • Identify and empower an experienced advocate for NEPRC within the senior leadership of HMS to ensure consistent HMS support for NEPRC.

While the panel is all industry insiders, some members are well known for their frankness and ability to turn around programs. The problem is that the concerned public—whose taxes fund the hundreds of millions of dollars in federal grants each year that support research on animals at the facility—cannot tell whether the message has been received. The public is privy only to the review panel’s summary, not the details concerning who may have been responsible and/or why this pattern has continued for many years. Individual names need not be released, but it would be useful to know what chain-of-command issues; human resource policies; patterns of discipline, promotion and retention; inadequate training; inattention; and/or lack of resources led to this situation.

Just fixing the compliance committees will not fix Harvard’s problems. The answer is a committed, caring staff at all levels who are empowered to use their expertise in primates on a daily basis to assist the research staff in doing their jobs while ensuring the primates are handled, anesthetized, and monitored for health and welfare issues at a level the public expects and good science dictates. The basic breakdown in staff training, empowerment, and culture of care will not be solved via these recommendations unless there truly is a cultural change. There are talented people at Harvard’s primate facility who can make this change, if they are supported in this process.

Read more articles about: