APS Critiques Animal Rights Report, Congressional Requests for Information

APS President Jane F. Reckelhoff wrote to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) on March 2, 2017 to raise questions about recent Congressional requests to investigate animal research at federal agencies. The GAO is an independent agency that reviews government activities on behalf of Congress. This case involves requests from 13 Representatives and 3 Senators that grew out of a report by the animal rights group White Coat Waste Project (WCWP). Its report claimed that intramural researchers at 5 federal agencies mistreated animals and wasted taxpayer funds. In her letter, Reckelhoff told Comptroller General Gene Dodaro that these requests contained “misleading statements and failed to validate the authors’ criticisms about agency oversight of research programs.”

The impetus for the Congressional requests for an investigation was a report released by the WCWP at a November 15, 2016 Capitol Hill briefing sponsored by Representatives Dina Titus (D-NV) and Ken Calvert (R-CA). The report, with the lurid title Spending to Death, accused NIH, VA, DOD, CDC, and FDA of failing to provide appropriate oversight of their intramural animal research. It also claimed that the agencies were wasting money while harming animals in “bizarre” studies that do not advance our understanding of disease. WCWP is a joint venture between Anthony Bellotti and Justin Goodman with the stated purpose of ending federally-funded animal research. Bellotti is a former Republican political strategist, while Goodman is PETA’s former director of investigations. WCWP seeks to appeal to both Republicans and Democrats by arguing that animal research wastes money, serves no valid purpose, and harms animals.

A month after this report was released, 13 Representatives and 3 Senators wrote to ask the GAO to investigate all federally-sponsored animal research. GAO provides Congress with information about how the federal government spends taxpayer dollars. It gives priority to requests from Congressional committees, but individual Representatives or Senators can also ask for GAO investigations. A December 8, 2016 letter from Representatives Titus, Calvert, and 11 others asked Dodaro to “conduct a review of systems for accountability and transparency about intramural research at federal agencies.” A December 21, 2016 letter from Democratic Senators Jeanne Shaheen, Elizabeth Warren, and Cory Booker asked the GAO to “investigate current procedures and systems for the public reporting of federal spending on animal research in federal laboratories.”

The APS letter made the case that the Congressional requests for this investigation were influenced by the WCWP report and critiqued many assertions made in the letters. Reckelhoff noted that WCWP report included statements that were deliberately misleading and enumerated inaccurate statements in the Congressional letters that were presented as justification for the audit requests.

The letter was not sent in time to influence the GAO’s decision about whether to conduct an audit. It is unclear whether it could have had any influence since the GAO works for Congress rather than for the public. At a February 23, 2017 telephone town hall meeting organized by WCWP, Rep. Titus announced that GAO had agreed to review how the federal government conducts animal research. APS continue its efforts to encourage the GAO to consider the issues raised in the Reckelhoff letter in defining the mandate and parameters for the study.