Neuroscientist Margaret Livingstone’s paper, “Triggers of Mother’s Love,” went largely unnoticed when it was published in the journal “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences” (PNAS) in September.
But, once shared on social networks, the study received a shower of criticism and 250 scientists signed a letter asking the journal to retract it.
Animal rights associations recall the past work of Margaret Livingstone, who remarkably temporarily sutured the eyelids of baby monkeys to study the effect on their cognitive abilities.
“We cannot ask monkeys for their consent, but we can stop using, publishing and, in this case, actively promoting cruel methods that we know cause great suffering,” wrote Catherine Hobaiter , primatologist from the Scottish University of St Andrews.
The scientist, co-author of the PNAS letter, explained to AFP that he was waiting for a response from the journal before making further comments.
Harvard and Margaret Livingstone, for their part, strongly defended the study.
Her findings “may help scientists understand maternal bonding in humans,” which may help better support women after miscarriage or childbirth, Harvard medical school said in a statement.
In a separate text, Margaret Livingstone said she had “joined the ranks of scientists targeted and demonized by opponents of animal research, who want to ban life-saving research on all animals”.
He pointed out that he did not initially seek to study the maternal link, making this discovery within the framework of another research.
The argument to which critics respond that the researcher is still deliberately separating mothers from their children, and that his observations of comfort derived from soft toys do not advance science.
Such practice regularly attracts the ire of associations such as PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), which are hostile to any form of animal testing.
But, remarkably, this controversy has caused a strong reaction within the scientific community, said Alan McElligott, researcher at the municipal university of Hong Kong.
Margaret Livingstone appears to have replicated a study conducted by Harry Harlow, a famous American psychologist, she told AFP. His work, which was seen as revolutionary in the mid-20th century, may also contribute to the rise of the movement for the cause of animals.
For some scientists interviewed, the case represents a larger problem in animal research: questionable studies continue to be published in prestigious journals.
Alan McElligott cited a critically acclaimed 2020 paper that revealed the effectiveness of certain traps in capturing jaguars and pumas for scientific study.
More recently, marmoset experiments involving surgical operations have also created controversy.
The team from the University of Amherst Massachusetts behind this work says that studying these little monkeys, whose cognitive abilities decline at the end of life, is important to better understand Alzheimer’s disease to people.
But for the opposing camp, the results are rarely applicable from one species to another.
Hens with golden eggs
When it comes to drug tests on animals, the tide is clearly turning.
In September, the US Senate passed legislation to end the requirement for animal testing before any human trials for experimental drugs.
Most drugs that pass animal tests do not pass human trials, while new technologies make it possible to avoid this step.
Opponents say huge grants to universities and institutes — $15 billion a year, according to the White Coat Waste Project — perpetuate a system in which animals are seen as laboratory resources.
“Those who do animal experiments are the goose of these institutions, because they bring in more money,” says primatologist Lisa Engel-Jones, who now works for Peta.
“There’s a financial incentive to keep doing what we’re doing and try to publish as many articles as possible,” added Emily Trunnell, a neuroscientist who conducted experiments on mice and also works for Peta.
Most scientists do not share Peta’s stance on ending such experiments, preferring a more measured approach to reducing the use of animal testing.