Life Imitates Graduate School

So for people who aren’t aware, I’m finishing up a PhD in Health Care Ethics. (It’s bioethics, but the program predates the broad use of that term in the mid-90s so we use the older name.)

I’m in the dissertation writing phase (which is why posts here have been so sporadic.) Honestly I’ve been in this phase for far too long, but that’s another story.

I’m writing on animal research ethics. The elevator pitch is that we’ve deviated from the original interpretation of the “3Rs” (Reduction, Refinement and Replacement) written in the late 1950s, and are misapplying them as a way to eliminate animal research, rather than as a guide for ethical and accurate animal research. I then seek to restore them to their original state by updating them to use a modern virtue ethics theory (specifically Pellegrino’s professional virtue.)

One of the things that ended up on the cutting room floor, mostly because fleshing it out was going to take too much work and “the only good dissertation is a done dissertation” was a concept of “Regulatory Strangulation.” I’m not the first person to propose the idea, here’s someone at the Ayn Rand Institute, and honestly I didn’t do enough research to see how well others had fleshed it out. (Staring down that barrel was when I decided to axe it rather than build a whole chapter devoted it.)

The way I say the principle working was basically the mirror of “regulatory capture.” Instead of being captured by industry or “special interests” (a term normally implying industry related groups) the regulatory apparatus is captured by groups opposed to the regulated activity who use it to burden the various people actually engaged in said activity and thus “strangle” it.

The Wikipedia article on “Regulatory Capture” linked above, suggests the EPA was captured by Halliburton in such a way as to make fracking forever legal. Even if we take that as true, the pendulum seems to have shifted now such that the EPA is busy strangling coal and to a lesser extent oil based energy production (while somehow natural gas expands at a break neck pace.) This is an example of strangulation at work. If you can’t outlaw something, just regulate it to death. (Yes, the power to tax is the power to kill too, but for now let’s focus on the regulatory aspect.)

Returning to animal research ethics, the basic premise of this idea is that animal research has sufficient (albeit falling) public support such that it won’t be blatantly outlawed, so instead groups like HSUS, PETA (But I Repeat Myself) and others have attempted to capture the regulators and make animal research too expensive to carry out. There’s some evidence to support this happening, the USDA has entered its self-defined “Age of Enforcement” where it seeks to dole out fines against institutions as a way to set examples. This, in turn, has caused some high profile institutions to end their USDA controlled animal research programs (which is basically anything but mice and rats, which are overseen by the NIH’s Office of Lab Animal Welfare.) In response to this there’s been calls to pull mice and rats under the USDA purview so that they too can be regulated out of research.

I lacked a true “smoking gun” though. Until recently when my mentor sent an article my way about how an Ebola vaccine for the great apes may be stymied due to these new regulations.

Part of what’s interesting to me is that in my dissertation I explicitly avoided talking about veterinary research. You have to start somewhere, and I wanted to start with research geared towards human application to keep my focus narrow. The justification for veterinary research seemed considerably different, if not even easier to defend, than the human use question. Indeed, the rules that are stalling this research were explicitly created to address use for human purposes, not veterinary ones. But here we are, at a place where a vaccine could greatly help the great ape population (with some human benefits no doubt, but largely on the fringes) and no way to test it. All out of a concern for the “saving” the chimps.

2 comments on “Life Imitates Graduate School
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