The University’s recent announcement that the New England Primate Research Center run by Harvard Medical School will be shut down by 2015 leaves us with mixed feelings. Certainly, the center was not without problems. Last February its track record of animal mistreatment earned it a citation for violations of the Animal Welfare Act by the United States Department of Agriculture, following the deaths of two monkeys. It goes without saying that the careless handling of test subjects was highly problematic, and doubtlessly warranted a change of practice and a newfound commitment to animal safety.
However, a complete shutdown of the center signifies that Harvard will be barred from participating in crucial efforts in basic scientific research in the years to come. One of only eight primate research centers sponsored by the National Institutes of Health, the NEPRC is the sole research facility of its kind in the whole of the northeastern United States. If we are to take the University’s declaration that the center is to be closed because of financial uncertainties at face value, that further highlights the adverse outcomes of reductions in funding, and is especially relevant in light of the recent debate on sequestration.
Harvard’s ability to participate in a number of scientific endeavors will be crippled by the closure of the NEPRC: An example of this is the federal BRAIN Initiative recently kick-started by NIH, a large-scale effort in Brain Activity Mapping research whose stated goal is to build a functional map of human neural circuits by complementing the creation of a static connectome of the brain—that is, a map of the firing patterns of all neurons in the nervous central system under the effect of diverse stimuli. President Obama announced the nationwide launching of the brain initiative at the beginning of April in a speech that he gave at the White House.
Obama remarked how the BRAIN Initiative was partly inspired by the Human Genome Project in its approaches, and asserted that the deeper understanding of the brain’s system-wide dynamics to be acquires in the course of this large-scale endeavor will be “transformative.” Obama maintained that the BRAIN Initiative would possibly herald new advances in the treatment of diseases like Parkinson’s or autism. Indeed, other scientists have agreed with Obama’s enthusiastic stances, from Society for Neuroscience President Larry W. Swanson, to the group of scientists who initially proposed the initiative. Among these was Harvard Medical School Professor George M. Church, who made clear in a seminal collaborative paper published in Neuron that primate research would be a fundamental step of the BAM research efforts.
The very reason for which primates are crucial test subject—their evolutionary closeness to us—warrants extreme care in their treatment. The NEPRC has been run reprehensibly in the past, and future primate research efforts must be handled with greater care. However, it is regrettable that research tools are being powered down because of financial difficulties, especially on the eve of such pivotal research endeavors as the federal BRAIN Initiative. The closure of the NEPRC will mean that Harvard’s contribution in a project that might prove as important as the mapping of the human genome will be limited—a great misfortune for a large research university.