Scientist Gets Big Grants Despite Glaring Silence on Monkey Restraint

On July 1, 2019, the National Institutes of Health awarded Johns Hopkins University’s Veit Stuphorn another major grant to study the neural mechanisms involved in risk-taking in monkeys. In year one of this new five-year grant, Stuphorn will receive $498,000. This is on top of the $4.4 million he was awarded in prior years. 

As AWI described in the winter 2018 edition of the AWI Quarterly, Stuphorn failed to disclose in an October 2018 article in the journal Current Biology that he subjects the monkeys to extreme restraint in primate chairs, with bars inserted into their ear canals and electrodes into their brains. A university press release (“Gambling Monkeys Like Big Bets, Study Finds”), which served as the basis for 68 subsequent news articles, made it seem as if the monkeys were voluntarily participating in an enjoyable activity—making choices via eye movements—while neglecting to mention that their eyes were virtually the only thing they could move.

Stuphorn and his co-author Xiaomo Chen later issued a “correction” to the paper, in which the experimenters state that it has “come to our attention” that the methods section “did not contain details” about the monkeys’ “training and pain management.” 

In this so-called correction, however, Stuphorn still fails to mention the restraint. Indeed, it is difficult to ascertain what exactly was changed, since Stuphorn and Current Biology don’t identify the actual revisions. The journal had published a prior Stuphorn article in February 2018, which also did not disclose any restraint. In this earlier paper, Stuphorn didn’t even describe pain management or how the monkeys were trained, and he stated that the monkeys “were group housed prior to training but singly housed during training and experiments.” This training lasted 12 months for one monkey and nine for the other.

In July 2016, USDA veterinary inspectors cited Johns Hopkins for singly housing multiple monkeys who were unable even to see another monkey, stating, “Inadequate social enrichment to primates can lead to behavioral problems that may manifest in abnormal and injurious behavior.” They noted that monkeys needing extra enrichment, such as those singly housed, did not appear to be getting enough. Stuphorn writes in the October 2018 Current Biology paper that “the monkeys in these studies received environmental enrichment provided by Johns Hopkins Animal Services.” 

In November 2015, eLife published another Stuphorn article that failed to disclose restraint, training method, pain management, or water restriction—with which Stuphorn has written he has “years of experience.” 

Stuphorn claimed that he issued his correction to comply with the ARRIVE (Animal Research: Reporting of In Vivo Experiments) scientific publication guidelines, which are intended to “improve reporting of research using animals” and “promote reproducible, transparent, accurate” manuscripts, and which are recommended for authors by Current Biology. Yet Stuphorn’s correction violates these very guidelines, which state that authors must “provide precise details of all procedures carried out.” 

All of this raises troubling questions about the scientific enterprise. This sorry episode is not just limited to Stuphorn; top-tier journals, the NIH (the world’s largest funder of research), and Johns Hopkins University (the largest recipient of NIH funds in 2018, with $674 million received) are also implicated. All are evincing a deplorable attitude that the pain and suffering these monkeys endure is of no consequence—a trivial aspect of the research not even worthy of discussion. 

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