Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Response to "Opinions, evidence, and anti-research agendas", by Amanda Dettmer

Welcome to the resurrection of BLOG LaFleur!

This special post is in response to a blog entry published on September 2, 2016 by the website Speaking of Research. The post was authored by Dr. Amanda Dettmer and entitled “Opinions, evidence, and anti-research agendas: A recap of a session at the American Society of Primatologists/International Primatological Society Meeting 2016”.

I was a co-organizer and panelist in this International Primatological Society (IPS)/American Society of Primatologists (ASP) roundtable session, and I will respond to Dr. Dettmer’s main criticisms and her question of ‘who should evaluate primate research’ here (Speaking of Research declined to post a blog response).

By way of overview, in her lengthy and scornful review of the roundtable session, Dr. Dettmer attempts to: 1) discredit the authenticity of the roundtable participants, 2) question the legitimacy of the information presented, and 3) deny that any part of the ensuing discussion was productive.

While I will comment on each of these points in turn, I must note that Dr. Dettmer’s extensive criticisms merely act to deflect attention from the tasks at hand, namely reevaluating ethical considerations of controversial non-human primate research, such as maternal deprivation studies, and bridging the existing divides between groups of primatologists, where welfare based dialogue has become largely too contentious to openly discuss. 

Additionally it is worth noting that, at no leading up to, during, or following the IPS/ASP roundtable session has Dr. Dettmer or any other ASP board member expressed an interest in gaining feedback from members on the research it endorses, such as controversial studies using maternal deprivation in non-human primates.

Dettmer criticism 1. “Despite its inclusion in the scientific program of scientific societies, the session presented little evidence and little balance.”

One of the strengths of primatology as a discipline is that it brings together researchers with vastly different interests and expertise. As such, IPS/ASP members may include evolutionists, geneticists, behaviorists, conservationists, and educators, to name a few. Given the breadth of primatological studies, differing methodologies may be employed, depending on the context and desired goals. Scientific or hypothesis-driven methods are integral to primatology; however, other methodologies or ways of knowing are used and equally valid, given appropriate circumstances. Philosophy, for example, is not a scientific discipline, yet the foundations for ethics and morality are found here.

My presentation, entitled Stewardship of non-human primates: can members drive progressive ethics (abstract 2392, available at, was not scientific in nature and did not present the results of hypothesis-driven research. My talk, provided background information on my involvement and interest in ethical considerations with reference to non-human primates, and also relayed some of my experiences while planning the roundtable discussion. These were both important as they set the stage for later discussion, but also addressed the divisive and even hostile climate within professional primatologists when openly discussing (or largely not discussing, given the hostility) the welfare and care of laboratory non-human primates. This hostility and divisiveness appears to largely stem colligate dialogue which could result in appreciably increased welfare for the primates in our care.

Other talks within the session did present scientifically derived information (abstracts 7454, 6852, 6909, and 6934, also available at For these, please do not confuse brevity of presentation (five-minute presentation format was chosen to maximize discussion time), or information collected via primary literature, with lack of evidence.

Note. From Dettmer criticism 1, it is not clear what “little balance” is referring to. I would happily comment on this if Dr. Dettmer cares to elaborate.
Dettmer criticism 2. The panelists were tied to organizations and/or campaigns opposed to laboratory research with nonhuman primates, yet did not disclose these ties upfront and failed to provide their basic starting assumptions or to acknowledge their positions.

First, I have no affiliations with organizations or campaigns opposed to laboratory research with non-human primates. However, if I did, I would hope that my word would be weighted with that of any other member, outside affiliations aside. As someone who is knowledgeable about non-human primates, I expect my authority to be based on my qualifications (doctoral and postdoctoral) and experience, not the affiliations that I hold.

Second, I fail to see why it is necessary for individuals to disclose institutional or organizational affiliations to which they are tied which may be apposed to laboratory research with non-human primates. Certainly, members who have ties to laboratories that conduct experimental research on non-human primates are not required to disclose affiliations or ‘acknowledge their positions’ during presentations. Moreover, disclosing any and all affiliative relationships is simply not standard procedure during IPS/ASP congresses.

Third, essentializing personal views on complex issues (i.e. being “for” or “against” laboratory experiments involving non-human primates) would at best be a false dichotomy, with respect to most peoples’ feelings on ethical research. Even if members could choose a simple ‘pro’ or ‘con’ stance, this would only likely act to further divide individuals. Furthermore, one could imagine a scenario wherein audience members, who would be otherwise open to logical arguments presented, become quickly biased upon hearing the “starting assumptions” or “positions”.

Rather than creating more divisions based on generalized bottom-lines (which are unlikely to exist in the same way for many people), we would be better served to acknowledge our commonalities and employ our primate empathetic and perspective-taking abilities, which are far more conducive to a creating a progressive dialogue on the ethical care of non-human laboratory primates.

Dettmer criticism 3. The fact-less rhetoric did not provide a basis for productive discussion about captive primate care or changes to existing regulations, as would have been provided with evidence-based presentations.

I disagree that the discussion was either fact-less or non-productive.

First, as outlined above, information needn’t be directly quantitative in order to be valid, or factual.

Second, several very important points emerged from the discussion, which will be integral to future discussions of captive non-human primate welfare and changes in existing regulations. To illustrate, a number of attendees noted feeling marginalized by the primatology community and suggested that the general atmosphere is hostile for discussing primate welfare. Interestingly, this sentiment likely applies to both to primatologists in support of and opposed to certain types of biomedical research with non-human primates (recognizing that this is a complex issue where few are likely completely in support of or against). Simply knowing this is powerful and could act as a starting point for bringing together primatologists, the vast majority of who wish to improve laboratory primate welfare.

Finally, I will comment specifically on the portion of Dr. Dettmer’s post regarding ‘who should evaluate primate research’? For ease of reading, I have included Dr. Dettmer’s text (in red italics) here, along with my responses.

The first speaker, LaFleur, wrote in the abstract of her presentation: “Ethical standards and cost-benefit analyses of non-human primates in research must continually be evaluated and reevaluated, by a diverse range of experts (including those without vested interests).” By “vested interests,” LaFleur presumably meant those working in primate research. What wasn’t clear is whether the panelists believe that they themselves and organizations such as PETA and HSUS also have clearly vested interests. For example, PETA has an extremely vested interests in this issue, yet nowhere during the session was it disclosed that panelist King has worked actively on campaigns organized by PETA (for other panelists’ ties to PETA; see below).

In this context, a “vested interest” refers to having a personal stake in maintaining the status quo of the current ethical standards that apply to laboratory use and care of non-human primates. Most obviously, anyone who is employed by a specific research project or laboratory has a vested interest in the research. Groups or individuals outside of those employed by non-human primate laboratories could also hold vested interests through their own employment, or by less obvious means, such as professional reputation. Despite these potential biases, those with vested interests may also be expertly qualified to contribute to progressing ethical standards. For these reasons, it is extremely important that ethical review panels have diversity and include at least some members who will not personally benefit from maintaining existing ethical norms.

Most important though, from the perspective of beginning with fact:  The analyses of non-human primates in research to which LaFleur refers already routinely occurs by experts in the field: the trained scientists, veterinarians, and colony managers, including many members of ASP, who work with primates in captive settings on a daily basis and dedicate much of their research programs toward understanding and improving their welfare (see, for one recent example, this special issue of the American Journal of Primatology, dedicated solely to the well-being of laboratory nonhuman primates).

Continual analyses of research programs, from a variety of experts occurs now must continue in future. My contribution to this is noting that experts without vested interests are also needed, and that ethical standards should be progressive rather than conservative.

LaFleur also wrote in her abstract, “I argue that experimental procedures which cause permanent and irreversible harm on individual non-human primates should not be deemed ethically permissible.” Yet, LaFleur failed to make a clear case for exactly why her position is justified in a way that is more appropriate than the position held by others who were part of the multi-level review that weighs scientific objectives and animal welfare and grants approval for research projects.

My position is no more or less valid than any of the individuals that were part of the multilevel review. However, what is important about my position is that I have little vested interest interest in maintaining the status quo of this research, as I do not personally gain via employment, publications, or social status, per se. Qualified persons outside of the institution, regulating board, and funding agency (who each have vested interests) provide a perspective that is currently lacking in the review process.

In sum, although Dr. Dettmer declined to participate as a panelist in the roundtable discussion*, her vast experience with captive primate research (including the maternal deprivation studies in question) could have provided valuable knowledge and insight into the ethical considerations that affect laboratory non-human primates. Rather than contribute to this important dialogue, Dr. Dettmer wrote an extensive blog post that aims to discredit my authenticity and legitimacy, along with that of my colleagues. Surely, this is not the most productive way to a progressive ethics, one that benefits the primates within our collective care as IPS/ASP members. I sincerely hope that Dr. Dettmer and many other non-human primate researchers, including the remainder of the board members of ASP, embrace a cooperative stance in future. A stance that is conducive to discussing and implementing progressive ethical standards, and one that truly puts first the welfare of non-human primates in laboratories. At present, this is simply not the case. 

Marni LaFleur, Ph.D. is the founder and co-director of Lemur Love, Inc. a US-based 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, an adjunct professor at the University of California San Diego, and a member of the IUCN Species Survival Commission Primate Specialist Group. Responses here are mine alone and do not represent those of my co-organizer or fellow panelists, funders, or academic institutions.

* It is also worth noting that several laboratory-based primate researchers who were in attendance at IPS/ASP 2016 were invited to speak on the panel; all either refused to participate or failed to respond to invitations.

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