Transparency In Jeopardy: The High Cost of “Free” Information

This story originally appeared in the Winter 2018 issue of Animal Action. 

Earlier in 2019, nearly 600 scientists and members of the animal research community signed an open letter published in USA Today which called for more transparency in animal research. “We call upon our country’s research institutions—large and small—to embrace openness,” they said. “We should proudly explain how animals are used for the advancement of science and medicine, in the interest of the well being of humans and animals.” But how sincere is the research community being about its desire for transparency? The answer, unfortunately, appears to be “not very.” This past May, as part of our ongoing legislative advocacy program in support of dog and cat adoption, NAVS sought out information on the use of dogs and cats at Nebraska research institutions in 2017. We wanted to know which institutions used dogs and cats, how many were used, and for what type of research they were being used. We started by going to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) website, where we were able to obtain some general information. We identified six research institutions that combined used 140 dogs and cats in 2017. We were also able to determine that all but seven of the animals required the administration of pain relief. What was lacking, though, was solid information about the purposes for which the animals were being used. Often, institutional reports on animal use will include benign procedures such as spaying or neutering, or medical treatment conducted in cooperation with shelters or veterinary offices. After hours searching for additional data, we discovered that two of the institutions included in our initial search did, in fact, offer veterinary programs. However, this information came from a separate search of the college websites, not from APHIS records. And the available information still did not reveal whether the animals at those facilities were being helped,
or if they were used as subjects of experiments. There are more problems with the current system. Using APHIS’ search
tool, we can no longer search for animals by species to discover which institutions are using them. We can no longer find enforcement actions against any research institutions unless they go through a USDA administrative law judge. And we cannot—and never have been able to—find out from APHIS for what purpose research institutions are using animals.
NAVS’ experiences are not unique. A recent U.S. Government Accountability Office Report (GAO) to Congressional Requesters on Animal Use in Federal Research actually suggests that researchers are not open to transparency, but
rather, fighting against it. When asked whether federal agencies that may have additional information about their animal use programs should share more animal use data with the public, the GAO report stated that “Stakeholders, other than animal
advocacy organizations—including federal agencies, research organizations, academia, and others—generally expressed the view that federal agencies should not routinely make additional [animal use] information available to the public, citing reasons including the existence of other methods to obtain this information and administrative burden.” So much for the animal research community’s call to “embrace openness.” NAVS’ mission to end the exploitation of animals used in science involves educating the public regarding the use and abuse of animals in research. As such, we have an obligation to provide accurate information on animal use to our supporters, policymakers and members of the general public, whose tax dollars help fund this multi-billion-dollar industry. But our ability to obtain meaningful information on the way animals are used in
research in the United States continues to be met with obstacles. The two biggest: time and money.

Too Much Time

It has been almost two years since APHIS unexpectedly took its Animal Care Search Tool offline. This was an interactive database that NAVS and other animal advocacy organizations used on a regular basis for understanding trends in animal use and investigating Animal Welfare Act violations by research institutions. APHIS rolled out a new search tool in 2017,
which they referred to as “a refined public search tool…to make animal welfare information publicly available.” However, APHIS’ new research tool is “refined” only in the sense that it denies previously accessible information. Users can no longer run the same type of on-demand, customized searches. The database restricts the quality and quantity of data provided by the agency, and certainly provides no new information that illuminates animal use. The public has been asked to file Freedom of Information Act Requests (FOIAs) to gather the information that is no longer accessible in this database. But, from our own experience, using FOIAs to obtain information from APHIS is much less efficient and more time-consuming
than the use of the pre-existing Animal Care Search Tool. For instance, it took more than nine months for APHIS to respond to a FOIA request regarding USDA licensees with direct violations of the Animal Welfare Act based on inspections that have taken place within the past 12 months. And when we finally received a response, the information APHIS provided was almost entirely redacted. APHIS stated that they “have determined that the protection against potential harassment, possible threats, and the overall invasion of personal privacy far outweighs any public interest in revealing their personal information.”
According to the FOIA annual report, the number of FOIA requests APHIS received from October 2015-September 2016 to October 2016-September 2017 jumped 54%, from 1,146 to 1,762 requests. In that same time frame, APHIS processed 21% fewer requests. Since the search tool was removed in 2017, the time to process a request has increased, and it continues to do so. In 2017, the average response time increased to 124 days for a simple request and 266 days for a complex request. Because of this lengthy delay, the public can no longer access any data in a timely fashion, making much of the information outdated by the time it is obtained.

Too Much Money

NAVS has also faced roadblocks when trying to get a better understanding of the purpose of various animal experiments conducted in university labs. Because APHIS fails to collect basic information from research facilities on how animals are being used for teaching, testing and research for their annual reports, we must resort to filing FOIAs to universities directly to gain access to this information. However, private institutions are not required to respond to FOIA requests. And public institutions are not very forthcoming with detailed information. Even if the universities are willing to provide the requested information, the cost to obtain the records is often high and relevant information is generally redacted from the final report.
Last summer, NAVS sent the same FOIA request to nearly two dozen institutions to obtain information on protocols for
experiments on cats and dogs. Some institutions improperly denied our request because we weren’t residents of the state in which the university was located. Others said the records we requested were not public records under state law and refused to share the information. A few universities did respond to our FOIA quickly and without cost, while others, like Iowa State University, threatened to charge “tens of thousands of dollars” to fulfill the records request. Texas A&M was not far behind, as they wanted more than $12,000 to provide responses to our request. Nearly all universities denied—or simply ignored—our request for fee waiver as a nonprofit. Billions of taxpayer dollars are spent on animal experimentation in the United States every year, despite the public’s decreasing support of animal research. Taxpayers should have a right to obtain basic information on animal use; it should not be cost prohibitive. Universities inflate the cost of fulfilling FOIA requests to prevent
the public from accessing this information. What are they trying to hide?

Impeding Progress

There are consequences to not being able to access this very basic information on animal experimentation, and it is delaying the progress we are able to make on important initiatives. Just one example: As part of our campaign to ensure the adoption of cats and dogs no longer being used for research purposes, NAVS provides information to legislators on the number of animals used by research institutions in their state. Last year, NAVS saw an opportunity to advance this humane legislation in the state of Pennsylvania. But doing so required access to animal use data for the state. The cost of responding to FOIA requests, and the fact that private institutions did not have to respond to them, left us without vital statistics needed to back up our request, and thus stymied this important legislative effort. And it goes beyond simply introducing legislation. The public’s attitude toward animal research is shifting—a majority of Americans now oppose the practice. The reasons for this progress are many; however, chief among them is the increased awareness of the issue that NAVS and other animal protection organizations have been able to bring to the forefront. The bottom line is that facts are being hidden from us—and from you. The animal research community does not want them to be published, and they are doing everything they can to delay, impede and restrict access to this information. At a time when all other parts of society are moving toward ease of access to information, our government and the animal research community you support with your tax dollars are moving backward.

Overcoming The Barriers

The public has been kept in the dark about animal experimentation for too long. There needs to be more transparency regarding the kinds of experiments that are conducted on animals. NAVS has taken important steps to make information about animal use more easily accessible to the public. In 2014, we submitted a petition for rulemaking that would require the USDA to collect and report on how animals are used in research, teaching and testing, which is important in advocating for change. Despite the fact that the USDA received more than 1,700 comments on our request, APHIS continues to delay making any response to our requested rulemaking. In the meantime, having APHIS restore full information to a functional, user-friendly searchable database in which customized searches can be run would be a step in the right direction, and it
would save governmental agencies time and money by reducing the necessity of responding to most FOIA requests. A full understanding of how many—and for what purposes—animals are being used is an important tool in advocating for change. With your continued support, NAVS will continue to fight for increased transparency and accountability on the part of our
government to aid us in our efforts to ensure no animal is exploited in the name of science. 🐾

This entry was posted in News and tagged on January 24, 2020.
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