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Of Mice and Men

Of Mice and Men

Point of View: with Barbara Sumner Burstyn

Sometimes a scientific breakthrough is so remarkable it stops you in your tracks. The announcement recently that Dr Ina Dobrinski, a researcher at The University of Pennsylvania has created mice with fleshy lumps on their backs is one of those. While the lumps look innocuous they’re actually transplanted goat and pig sperm factories, able to pump out as much pig and goat sperm a day as your average goat or pig. Dr Dobrinski, who is planning human-mouse grafts, is proud of her achievements and maintains the research will benefit infertile men, especially those about to undergo chemo or other invasive techniques. Instead of losing the change to procreate the doctor predicts they’ll soon be storing their sperm on the backs of their pet mice.

Relocated into a New Zealand context such genetic research is not unusual. We have over 40 research groups, some attached to universities, either state-owned or private companies doing all manner of experiments on animals, including cloning and genetic modifications. What is strange is Dr Dobrinski’ s openness about her research. In New Zealand such openness is almost unheard of.

Last week the state-owned AgResearch successfully appealed to the Office of the Ombudsmen to stop the release of information on people belonging to its animal ethics committee. In support of the information suppression, Auckland University animal ethics chairman Dr Don Love reassured the public that no scientist in this country wanted to cause suffering in animals. The approval process, he says, particularly where the animal would suffer severely, was extremely rigorous. "You really have to go through the mill to get the box ticked to go ahead with those ones. You always have to justify what you are doing. It's not as if it's open slather."

Really?

Peter Wills is not so sure. An associate professor at Auckland University's physics department, he said in a NZ Herald interview as saying a recent AgResearch application lacked important details, such as the effects of the research on the cows used. Boycotting the proceedings of the Environmental Risk Management Authority (Erma) the body that oversees applications, he said they had a record of "rubber-stamping" research applications and ignoring opposing views to applications. Combine Will’s concerns with the recent report that AgResearch effectively sidestepped scrutiny by a new ethics council for it’s controversial work involving inserting a range of goat and human genes into cows and you begin to wonder if AgResearch is the last organization we should trust to behave ethically. Especially to animals.

A well-operated ethics committee has two essential functions. The first is to work consistently to avoid unnecessary experiments and encourage the search for alternatives. The second is to be transparent and accountable, both to the expectations of the public and to the researchers. According to animal rights activists in New Zealand our research community is already one of the most secretive in the world. The Chief Ombudsman’s decision will only exacerbate that and result in accountability limited only to those with a vested interest in the outcome. It will mean all procedures and decisions will be controlled within the research community itself. And even if the committees do have highly developed accountability mechanisms they will now be incapable of hearing the public voice. While communities will be unable to promote awareness about animal research issues. Of course AgResearch had compelling reasons to seek and gain their suppression order. Citing an attack on a scientist last year that involved acid poured on a car and threatening phone calls they say they are simply protecting their scientists and the people who serve on their ethics committees. The one thing AgResearch has not realized is that people take extreme measures in extreme situations. The knowledge that acts of cruelty are being carried out on more than 300,000 animals each year in New Zealand in a closed environment may be enough to make any mildly angry activists a little agitated. Secrecy drives not only the crown owned AgResearch and all the private institutions underground but also the animal activists.

It’s not good enough for ethics committees to tell us they’re being ethical and abiding by the rules. They must be seen to be ethical as well and committee members should be willing to stand behind their decisions. As Green Party MP Sue Kedgley said last week, “Why is there this great veil of secrecy if there is nothing to hide?"

This suppression order is not about protecting scientists, only one of whom in New Zealand has ever reported an attack. It’s a selfish desire to behave unhindered, to position the science above all else, as if science were a morality unto itself. By agreeing to the suppression order The Ombudsman has effectively created an environment where the acts of cruelty can flourish and the public imagination can run wild. If they’re openly growing human life on the bodies of mice in America, how much more are they doing in secrecy here?

Want to have your say? Email Barb with your feedback…

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