- - Sunday, February 23, 2020

The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) bills itself as the largest and most influential gathering of conservatives in the world. According to the American Conservative Union, over 19,000 people attended CPAC 2019, some of whom had not missed a single conference since Ronald Reagan gave the first CPAC keynote speech way back in 1974.

There are several core beliefs in the conservative movement that virtually every attendee at CPAC agrees upon. Among them is a desire for a fiscally conservative approach to government, with most conservatives believing the government tends to waste taxpayer money. A second core conservative belief is that life is precious and always must be respected.

It is with those two basic principles in mind that the thousands gathering this week in National Harbor at the 2020 edition of CPAC find themselves with an unusual ally.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has fought for over a year and a half to get research records from the National Institutes of Health regarding unusual lab experiments. Among the records requested by PETA were budgets, government grants, photos and videos. Under the Freedom of Information Act, the federal government is supposed to make nearly all records available to the public upon request, but it has become the norm in some segments of government to ignore FOIA requests until and unless the requester takes the fed’s failure to respond to court and forces the release of the information via a federal court order.

Such was the case when PETA inquired at the NIH about a woman named Elisabeth A. Murray, who works in the National Institute of Mental Health’s Intramural Research Program (IRP) and has been in charge of a budget of tens of millions of dollars over more than a decade.

PETA’s specific interest is that Ms. Murray has been carrying out experiments on monkeys. The purported aim of these experiments has been to investigate which regions of the brain are critical to typical and atypical human emotional reactivity, behavioral flexibility and value updating.

PETA wanted to know what the purpose of the experiments was, to learn the track record and results of the experiments, and to see what if any evidence existed of the treatment and condition of the animals being used in the experiments. More than 18 months after initiating its request, PETA has answers, pictures and videos. All are disturbing.

The dollar costs of the monkey experiments have been staggering, the results have been disappointing and the manner in which the living primates have been treated is appalling.

Ms. Murray has received tens of millions in project funding from NIH, part of the Department of Health and Human Services. According to NIH’s funding database (RePORTER), she received $3.1 million from 2007 to 2008 and $33.2 million from 2009 to 2019. That is more than $36 million in 13 years to carry out experiments on dozens of monkeys without any tangible benefits to humans.

Why does any of this matter to the folks attending CPAC? Because $36 million has been tossed around on monkey business — literally — with no tangible results other than the suffering inflicted on the primates themselves. Money that could go to other health research is being spent to intentionally destroy intelligent life.

According to Ms. Murray’s own web page, her laboratory “studies the neural basis of learning, memory, emotion and response selection … the extent to which different medial temporal lobe structures must interact in storing information and their interaction with the prefrontal cortex. Her work has demonstrated that, for some types of memory, the entorhinal and perirhinal cortical regions in the ventral medial temporal lobe play a more important role than does the hippocampus. Not only does this area, termed the rhinal cortex, specialize in storing knowledge about objects, but it may serve as the core system for semantic memory.”

It may serve? After 13 years and 36 million taxpayer dollars, the researchers think they “might” be onto something? This sounds like the worst stereotype of unaccountable government spending of your money that conservatives everywhere fear. What exactly are Ms. Murray and her team doing?

The $36 million experimenters put healthy monkeys in tiny cages and then do surgical procedures on them. They inject toxins into the monkeys’ brains — creating lesions and causing permanent damage to various brain regions. Then they taunt the monkeys. I kid you not, the videos obtained by PETA show the researchers intentionally scaring the brain damaged monkeys to record their reactions. They continue to do this year after year after year. When damage to one portion of the brain yields no meaningful results, Ms. Murray’s group moves on to another portion of the brain and the fun begins all over again.

The problems with the program are many, but any NIH program that has gone on for more than a dozen years and can’t point to any applicable impact on human health care probably doesn’t need to continue.

Let me toss out a better idea. According to the National Cancer Institute this year an estimated 11,060 new cases of cancer will be diagnosed among children from birth to 14 years. Could $36 million be better spent researching childhood cancers instead of intentionally inflicting brain damage on monkeys?

Worse yet, the research appears to be badly flawed. In a letter to the Director of National Institutes of Health, PETA’s Katherine Roe points out that the monkeys used in these experiments are forced to live alone or in pairs in an impoverished environment lacking in normal social, cognitive, or emotional stimulation, which is known to have a negative effect on primates’ social, emotional, and cognitive functioning — precisely the matters Ms. Murray is purporting to study.

Holding highly intelligent, social, sensitive primates captive in laboratories, performing invasive surgical procedures, and subjecting them to stressful, painful and fear-inducing experiments causes extreme long-term psychological and physical harm. This is unacceptable not only ethically but also scientifically — the myriad behavioral and physiological abnormalities induced by the acute and chronic stress of laboratory life render all data from these experiments unreliable.

Your $36 million, and make no mistake, it is your money, has been tossed away on lab studies so flawed that their results are deemed scientifically worthless. The money is gone. The monkeys lives are gone and yet for reasons unexplained, the program continues.

In her letter asking the NIH to stop the program, Ms. Roe asserts that Ms. Murray’s studies can inform us only about the effects of very precise brain damage on unhealthy, overstressed, asocial, and emotionally and cognitively stunted primates. Essentially, work that has no meaningful value in the medical world.

Proud conservatives and PETA activists are often miles apart on their priorities. In this instance however, the two would be hard pressed to be more aligned. Government waste and a callous disregard for the value of life are combining for little more than a paycheck for a team running a cruel program 13 years into a never-ending series of dubious experiments.

Conservatives everywhere would be wise to join PETA in condemning this program and demanding its end. PETA has done the heavy lifting and finally gotten full access to records, photos and videos. The result is information that doesn’t seem valuable enough to warrant this cruelty or the expense of millions of taxpayer dollars.

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