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GOP Lawmakers, Biden Come Together on Cats

Reps demand an end to NIH funding of Russian animal experiments; the president ends it. Are these two things connected?
April 18, 2023
GOP Lawmakers, Biden Come Together on Cats
A cat in Moscow, Russia on August 08, 2022. (Photo by Pelagiya Tihonova/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Republicans in Congress, acting on what appears to be genuine concern for other living things, are praising President Joe Biden for helping bring about an end to U.S. government funding for the alleged torture of cats in Russian biomedical research facilities.

This is not a spoof. Every statement in that sentence is true.

Yes, the United States has funded cruel cat experiments in Russia through the National Institutes of Health. Yes, GOP members of Congress urged Biden to be tougher on Russian President Vladimir Putin—a man the Republican party’s leader, Donald Trump, adores. Yes, the Biden administration seems to have pulled the funds, as urged. And yes, the GOP lawmakers are giving Biden credit for it.

“Having led congressional efforts over the past year to stop the flow of taxpayer dollars to Russia’s inhumane and unaccountable animal testing labs, I’m proud that the Biden administration finally listened to reason and halted this wasteful and dangerous spending,” GOP Representative Lisa McClain of Michigan, the lead advocate on this issue, said in a statement quoted by the Washington Times. The conservative outlet’s April 9 article was headlined, “NIH cuts off funding for Russian lab work, animal experiments after Biden order.”

Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa, meanwhile, called the Biden administration’s action “a great first step, but we need to claw back much more money. If the administration doesn’t stop funding foreign labs owned and operated by our adversaries like Russia and China, I plan to introduce legislation to do just that.”

In July 2021, the White Coat Waste Project, a watchdog group that opposes research using animals, identified $140 million in NIH funds that went to labs in at least 29 countries in fiscal year 2020. Of particular concern were NIH-funded experiments involving cats at the Pavlov Institute of Physiology in St. Petersburg, Russia, which, between amounts it received in 2018 and in 2021, has garnered about $770,000 in U.S. tax dollars. White Coat Waste has described these experiments, meant to study spinal injuries, as “torture.”

GOP lawmakers including McClain have repeatedly pushed for the U.S. funding to be pulled. The Washington Times said it was told by the NIH’s office of extramural research that the nation’s premier medical research agency “currently does not fund any research in Russia.” The Times, citing the NIH’s grant reporting system, said the Pavlov Institute cat experiments had been “budgeted through the end of May 2023,” meaning there had been a planned ongoing flow of funds.

Separately, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) on March 30 released a report calling for increased NIH oversight of grants “to foreign organizations for research involving animals.” The GAO’s recommendations include site inspections and third-party verification of facility reports attesting to the foreign research facilities’ compliance with animal welfare standards. As it is, the report says, “NIH may be missing opportunities to identify and respond to possible instances of noncompliance with animal care and use standards at foreign research facilities.”

These developments still leave room to wonder whether the Biden administration was moved by the arguments it heard from McClain and others, or whether it independently just decided to do what they asked. Dan Wunderlich, a spokesperson for McClain, told me in an email that “we only know the timing of the termination of funding as outlined in the Times article. The White House never reached out to us to give a heads up or anything like that.”

I emailed the NIH’s Office of Extramural Research last Tuesday, asking whether this termination of grant funding “was done in response to concerns that were raised by Rep. McClain and others.” An automatic response said “Someone from our office will be in touch within the next five business days.” On Friday, after I pinged the office again, Assistant Grants Policy Officer Priyanga Tuovinen wrote, “We are currently reviewing your inquiry and will follow-up as soon as possible.” He included some boilerplate about how “The NIH has integrated the highest level of public accountability into its scientific mission through access to its research data.”

This morning, the NIH Office of Extramural Research provided this largely non-responsive response:

As we reported to The Washington Times, NIH currently does not fund any research in Russia. Furthermore, NIH does not discuss grants compliance reviews on specific funded awards, recipient institutions, or supported investigators, whether or not such reviews occurred or are underway.

Stephen Dinan, the Washington Times reporter, said NIH did not tell him more about whether the contacts from lawmakers were a factor in the decision to suspend funding. He said in an email that he did not know “what the factors were and did not draw a direct causal link, only a time sequence.”

But it is a sequence that suggests that, on this issue, the GOP and Biden were able to find common ground and reach a mutually agreeable result, as crazy as that sounds.

McClain, notes Wunderlich, has “led the charge on defunding these Russian labs,” beginning in October 2021, when she introduced legislation to prevent U.S. tax dollars “from being used to conduct or support research on vertebrate animals in foreign countries that are foreign adversaries.” The bill, called the Accountability in Foreign Animal Research (AFAR) Act, was referred to committee, where it died. McClain has said she plans to reintroduce it this session.

On March 2, 2022, a week after Russia invaded Ukraine, the White Coat Waste Project released a report highlighting the cat studies at the Pavlov Institute, which “received nearly $550,000 from the NIH in 2021 alone and another $220,000 back in 2018!” It even provided links to the funded experiments.

As part of one of these experiments, the group said, “The cats are knocked out and their brain stems are severed, and sometimes, pieces of their brain are even removed. The ‘zombie’ cats then have electrodes implanted into their spines and are forced to walk on treadmills.”

It included an illustration from the actual study:

The next day, March 3, McClain put out a press release regarding NIH funding of the Pavlov Institute’s “invasive experiments on cats.” It quoted Justin Goodman, senior vice president at White Coat Waste Project, saying “Taxpayers shouldn’t be forced to pay white coats in the Russian government to torture and kill cats in wasteful experiments.”

In a letter to Biden dated March 10, 2022, McClain and five other Republican House members—Nancy Mace (R-S.C.), Carlos Gimenez (R-Fla.), Brian Mast (R-Fla.), Diana Harshbarger (R-Tenn.), and Rodney Davis (R-Il.)—urged that the president take action to turn off this funding spigot.

“Our democratic ally Ukraine is facing repeated, daily attacks from invading Russian forces,” the letter said, noting that “the United States and other nations have come together and levied numerous sanctions meant to cripple the Kremlin. We write you today demanding you to target another sector of the Russian state: research labs funded in part by U.S. tax dollars.”

The letter, citing the White Coat Waste Project’s findings, said the Pavlov Institute of Physiology had received hundreds of thousands of U.S. taxpayer dollars, including for “horrific and barbaric experiments” on 18 healthy cats who had “portions of their brain removed, while electrodes were implanted in their spines. The cats were then subsequently forced to walk on a treadmill for spinal cord experiments.”

On June 11, 2022, three months after receiving this letter, the Biden White House issued new guidance on scientific and technological cooperation with Russia. It advised federal agencies to “wind down” their funding of and relationships with “Russian government-affiliated research institutions.”

“Such projects and programs that commenced and/or were funded prior to Russia’s further invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 may be concluded, but new projects in affected subject areas will not be initiated,” the guidance said. “Applicable Departments and Agencies have been advised to curtail interaction with the leadership of Russian government-affiliated universities and research institutions, as well as those who have publicly expressed support for the invasion of Ukraine.”

The White House guidance document said that “until Russia ends its war against Ukraine, the United States government will seek to limit engagement with the Russian government in various international projects and initiatives related to science and technology, except where required by our obligations under international law.” It did not make specific reference to research involving animals.

In September, McClain sent a letter to the NIH demanding answers regarding the cat experiments. “Earlier this year, the Biden administration committed to stopping the flow of tax dollars to draconian Russian animal labs, which they still have not done,” she wrote. This new letter “seeks to determine whether the Biden administration is serious about its commitment to stop sending tax dollars to Russian labs, especially during the countries ongoing war in Ukraine.”

All that seems certain is that funding for the Russian labs was discontinued. For the lawmakers and the White Coat Waste Project—not to mention the cats—that felt like a win.

“As far as we know, this is the first time ever that the U.S. government has defunded animal labs across an entire country,” said Goodman of the White Coat Waste Project in an email April 10, the day after the publication of the Washington Times article.

Said Anthony Bellotti, the group’s founder and president, “We applaud President Biden for subsequently defunding every single animal experiment across Russia, and we thank Rep. Lisa McClain, Sen. Joni Ernst, and bipartisan leaders in Congress for working with us to save U.S. tax dollars, protect national security, and end animal abuse by cutting off all foreign enemies’ labs.”

McClain, for her part, celebrated with a tweet, linking to the Washington Times article: “The @NIH has been sending American tax dollars to Russian labs to experiment [on] and torture innocent animals. I am proud to have led the charge to DEFUND this pointless, wasteful, and cruel NIH initiative.”

Who knows? Maybe Biden, who has a presidential cat named Willow, will continue to defund studies like this, in response in part to pressure from the GOP, and also because it seems like a humane thing to do. Perhaps this episode can serve as a reminder that Republicans and Democrats can sometimes make common cause. Stranger things have happened. Just not very often.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to include a comment from the National Institutes of Health.

Bill Lueders

Bill Lueders, former editor and now editor-at-large of The Progressive, is a writer in Madison, Wisconsin.