IACUC, Ethics, and Legal Exposure

ScienceBlogling Dr. Isis has an interesting post about the ethical obligations of junior scientists regarding animal research. Dr. Isis asks two questions:

  1. Does a graduate student/postdoc have a moral imperative to report non-compliant research, even in the face of potentially risking one’s career? How does one determine the risk/benefit of such actions?
  2. Is there a spectrum of what is worth reporting and what is not worth reporting? If so, what tools do you use to determine the morality of reporting/not reporting the behavior.

While I’m loath to contradict the Goddess, I think this is not the way to approach the question.

From the perspective of any scientist, particularly if you’re junior, the primary questions should be “Are you breaking the law?” and “Are you violating funding agency guidelines?” Forget ethics for a moment. If you’re caught, this could be a career-ender (and the university has put a lot more money into the senior person: they’ll cut you loose first). You might not be able to apply for grants (consider this ‘highly probable’), and non-academic organizations won’t want to hire you either.
Admittedly, after eight years of Little Lord Pontchartrain, the regulatory apparatus is a little…sparse, but, if you get caught up in it, this is a level of hurt that your former advisor and sympathetic colleagues will be unable to fix. This is really no different than an administrator calling you up, and telling you that they’re only going to report half of your income, so they can pocket the FICA and Social Security taxes (no doubt, for a good cause).
You would be out of your fucking mind to do this.
So if your advisor encourages/orders you to violate IACUC-approved procedures, you need to stand up and not do this, and make sure there’s an electronic or written record of your efforts to do so (it boggles the mind that PIs would put themselves at legal and professional risk by violating IACUC procedure…). Without getting into the details, I was put in an analogous situation at a former place of employment regarding use of NIH funds, and I stood up to my boss–I know from personal experience that I’m not offering ‘risk-free’ advice. There very well could be consequences, but those you can handle, albeit with difficulty. Violation of NIH guidelines regarding animal research, you can not.
The trickier problem occurs when you have an IACUC-approved protocol that you believe is unethical. My advice to junior scientists is:

  1. Try to work around it if possible (i.e., switch to another project, convince the PI, if you’re a junior graduate student, switch labs, etc.).
  2. If that doesn’t work, grin and bear it (provided you don’t find it so disgusting that you must leave, in which you’ve made your decision about what to do already). Like it or not, the power imbalance between a PI and a dependent scientist requires a greater ethical responsibility on the part of the PI: he or she is not only responsible for his or her conduct, but for the conduct of those who report to the PI. Just do what you need to do to extract yourself from this situation as best you can, and move on.
  3. When you grow up and become a PI, remember this little episode and behave better.

I realize purists will be upset with this advice, but a person’s career doesn’t happen in a vacuum. A lot of people helped you get to this point (family, friends, colleagues), and you need to think long and hard about their efforts before walking away (to the possible detriment or ending of your career) because some assholes (remember, the IACUC approved this) have behaved unethically. In fact, you might want to ask them what to do.

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5 Responses to IACUC, Ethics, and Legal Exposure

  1. Mokele says:

    One thing worth considering is that IACUC guidelines aren’t always well-informed, especially considering species more exotic than rats. I remember at my old lab, the IACUC inspectors asked how we sterilized the filters for the fish tanks, making it abundantly clear they don’t know how aquarium filters work. Or when we had to try to explain to them how futile it was to sterilize the cage of an animal that eats whole dead rats. Fortunately, long before I arrived they’d just given up and let us handle day to day care.

  2. Paul Browne says:

    An interesting discussion, I’m more familiar with the system in the UK where approval of protocols is the responsibility of the Home Office, and institutions are frequently visited by inspectors to ensure compliance.
    It works well, but is somewhat notorious for the time it can take to get approval for a project, or even for changes to individual protocols.
    Looking at the US system it seems that a lot of authority and responsibility is devolved to local IACUCs, might increased federal involvement help to avoid “problem” IACUCs and improve communication and standardization amongst different institutions. Being able to draw on expertise on a national level might also help avoid situations such as that described by Mokele above. Would this be best achieved by replacing the IACUCs with a Dept. of Agriculture Inspectorate or by appointing a Dept. of Agriculture expery/liason?
    Also it seems odd to me that mice and rats are not covered by the Animal Welfare act? Would it not be better to extent the AWA to cover all vertebrates (and some cephalopods)?
    Mokele mentions problems while working with an IACUC that is unfamiliar with care of the animals that he works with, were these problems sorted out before the protocols were approved? Was your lab able to get any of the IACUC guidlines ammended?

  3. Edward says:

    One thing to remember about rules for animal care and the like:
    In some cases, people who want to shut down animal research entirely have had a hand in making the rules. They will try to get rules approved that simply drive up the cost of research and/or make research more difficult. Such rules tend to be wasteful and, in some cases simply unethical. However, the rules are the rules and not following them can cause research projects to be shut down.
    I think the best one can do in such a situation is to follow the rules but protest.

  4. Mokele says:

    Mokele mentions problems while working with an IACUC that is unfamiliar with care of the animals that he works with, were these problems sorted out before the protocols were approved? Was your lab able to get any of the IACUC guidlines ammended?
    The IACUC generally tried to be useful, and we had protocols in place for all species. They just never really *got* it, deep down, about just about utterly different the care requirements could be. Just in the time I was there, we had 9 species, ranging from lungfish to common US snakes to fussy tropical tree boas, and prior work ranged even further, including venomous snakes. They’d fuss about condensation in the cage of an animal that needed 80% humidity, they fussed about using wooden branches for species that couldn’t climb smooth plastic, and we had to force-feed several delicate animals because they wouldn’t sign off on feeding them live mice. Of course, I can see the problem from their perspective – if they just let us do whatever we want, it’s like there are no regulations and all they have is our word. Still, I do wish someone could publish a general set of guidelines for IACUCs dealing with exotic species, as I’m going to be in the same situation once I start my own lab.

  5. Paul Browne says:

    That’s interesting Mokele, so far as care of the animals is concerned it would seem sensible to draw up national guidelines. Perhaps the Dept. of Agriculture, which also has a responsibility for zoos that probably account for far more exotic species than research institutes, could prepare such guidelines. It would require some work at the outset but probably save a lot of time and effort later.
    Who knows, it might even lead to exotic animals in zoos being better cared for!

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