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Harvard Medical School to Shutter Primate Research Center

Primate problems. A cotton-top tamarin was one of several monkeys that recently died at a Harvard primate research center, sparking an inquiry.

Ltshears/Wikimedia Commons

Citing an increasingly bleak outlook for federal research funding, Harvard Medical School is shutting down its major primate center, which has recently experienced the departure of several key scientists and an investigation into its handling of animals.

In the announcement yesterday, which surprised many primate researchers, the school said it will not seek to renew the New England Primate Research Center's (NEPRC's) 5-year grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and will "wind down operations" at the center in Southborough, Massachusetts, over the next 2 years. "Driving the decision was the fact that the external funding environment for scientific research has become increasingly challenging over the past decade. Recent funding pressures have added uncertainty to this already-challenging fiscal context," the university stated, apparently referring to mandatory spending cuts that sliced 5% from NIH's budget this year.

"Deciding how to best assign our limited resources is not unique to HMS," said medical school Dean Jeffrey S. Flier in the announcement, "but this decision was made with a heavy heart."

The center, which has a nearly 50-year history, had done groundbreaking work on an AIDS vaccine and developed animal models for diseases such as Parkinson's, among other accomplishments. According to The Boston Globe, the center received $27 million from NIH this year and has 20 faculty members, 32 postdocs and graduate students, and 150 staff members. Harvard is planning "an orderly transition of the NEPRC research programs," according to the announcement. Some of the center's nearly 2000 animals will be transferred to the NIH's seven other primate centers; others will be "managed" at NEPRC, Harvard's statement says.

The Globe notes that after an investigation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Harvard was working to correct problems that led to the deaths of four monkeys at the center since mid-2010. Flier told the paper that the decision was not related to those problems, however.

Outside researchers were taken by surprise, the Globe reports. Nancy Haigwood, director of the Oregon National Primate Research Center in Beaverton, called the decision "very, very, disturbing, disappointing, disheartening, shocking." She said the decision will slow research and harm the careers of the center's senior researchers.

A former NEPRC researcher who asked not to be named blames Harvard management for a lack of recent support for the center's research program, telling ScienceInsider that there has recently been a "death spiral" in which the center's most well-funded faculty members have left, taking their grants with them. Still, the researcher says, "We had no idea they would shut down the whole operation."

Although most of the remaining faculty members will probably land on their feet and find positions elsewhere, "it's just a shame that they [Harvard Medical School leaders] took what was a vibrant scientific center and just destroyed it," the researcher says.