From the Executive Director

Hiding Behind a Veil of Science

It is reprehensible for attacks to be directed at researchers who use nonhuman animals in their efforts to advance knowledge. That is why APA lobbied hard for passage of the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) of 2006.

By Steven Breckler, PhD

APA has long been a strong advocate for the ethical and humane care and use of nonhuman animals in research.  We work hard to support policies and regulations that both maintain the integrity of scientific research and sustain the welfare of animals used in research.

APA takes this position because we know that nonhuman animal research contributes to the welfare of both people and other animals.  People depend on science and biomedical research to improve the quality of their lives.  They expect diseases to be cured and demand interventions that work.  Nonhuman animal research is often the only ethical and responsible approach.  Scientists get it.  Policy makers get it.  Most citizens get it.  Sadly, a few do not – a small minority chooses to direct their anger and hostility in the form of violence against researchers and research facilities.

It is reprehensible for attacks to be directed at researchers who use nonhuman animals in their efforts to advance knowledge.   That is why APA lobbied hard for passage of the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) of 2006.  Under this act, the U.S. Department of Justice is authorized to prosecute those who attack animal research laboratories.

Animal rights activists revel in the media notoriety they gain as a result of their terrorist activities.  It seems that hardly a year goes by without acts of violence committed in the name of animal rights.  One case in particular hit psychology square in the face.  In 2004, several psychology laboratories at the University of Iowa were vandalized, causing over $400,000 in damage (not to mention the interruption of ongoing research).

Federal investigators have been working on the Iowa incident.  As reported in Science magazine in December, 2009, two sociology graduate students at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities were subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury in Davenport, Iowa.  The two students refused to testify, resulting in charges of conspiracy under the AETA.

We don’t know if the students were involved in the Iowa break-in, or if they even have knowledge of the incident.  It is their refusal to testify that raises disturbing questions.  This is a federal investigation of terrorism committed against the psychology laboratory facilities of a major university.  It is an investigation motivated by the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act of 2006.

The two sociology graduate students have taken the position that their refusal to cooperate with federal investigators is justified by their obligations as social scientists.   The students study radical activist groups, and they promise confidentiality to their research participants.  Supporters of the students argue that they are simply abiding by the ethical standards of their academic field, and that they are doing the right thing to protect the confidentiality they promised to subjects.

I agree that confidentiality is critical.  Psychologists are very familiar with the importance and value of confidentiality, both in our research and in our roles as clinicians.  It is an ethical obligation that we take very seriously, and it receives considerable attention in our own codes of ethical conduct.

The students justify their position on grounds of academic freedom and scientific integrity.  If they know anything about the Iowa incident, it was presumably learned in the course of their research.   They were using the method of participant observation, which is commonly used in the social sciences to study groups.  Yet, the method creates special challenges when it comes to confidentiality and ethical conduct.  Researchers walk a fine line between studying groups and becoming active members of them.  It is not easy research to do.  Maintaining the separation between scientist and research subject is essential.  Without it, the integrity of the method fails and it is no longer science.

According to the report in Science magazine, it appears that the students may indeed have knowledge that could be useful to the federal investigators.  If this is true, it is important to know whether they crossed the line between studying a group and being an active member of it.  If the scientific integrity of their method was maintained, then their pledges of confidentiality should be honored.  But if their participation was as activists – not as scientists – then they are merely hiding behind a thin veil of science and their claims of academic freedom should not be tolerated.