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Talk Show Host Bill Maher Asks NASA to Halt Monkey Experiment Plan

Bill Maher

The new season of Real Time with Bill Maher starts later this month. On the show, political satirist Maher discusses hot-button topics with unflinching honesty. Last month, he was equally candid when he made a lifesaving request to NASA. He wrote and asked the space agency to halt its plan to spend $1.75 million to blast live squirrel monkeys with dangerous levels of radiation.

“Years ago, NASA and the Air Force sponsored extensive radiation research on monkeys,” wrote Maher to NASA administrator Charles F. Bolden Jr. “Those experiments did not answer the important questions about human radiation exposures, and many experts doubt that this new experiment will do so either. There are better, more humane ways of understanding the potential dangers of interplanetary travel for humans.”

Squirrel monkeys are tiny but intelligent primates who live in large colonies with strong social structures. The experiments—proposed by researcher Jack Bergman of McLean Hospital in Boston—would involve irradiating the monkeys and testing them to see how they perform on various tasks. Bergman has used squirrel monkeys for 15 years in addiction experiments, which have involved applying electric shocks, withholding food, and completely immobilizing the animals in restraint chairs for extended periods.

In November, in a federal petition to Bolden, PCRM asked him to halt the monkey experiments because they violate the NASA Principles for the Ethical Care and Use of Animals, also known as the Sundowner Report. The space agency has not used monkeys for radiobiology research in decades. But prior NASA experiments involving monkeys have resulted in death for the animals involved.

PCRM’s petition for administrative action states, “Genetic, physiological, and anatomical differences between humans and monkeys dramatically limit the conclusions that can be drawn from the planned experiments. Ongoing studies, including those funded by NASA and the U.S. Department of Energy, already use nonanimal methods to determine the effects of low-dose radiation on human tissues.”

Radiation experiments involving nonhuman primates commonly involve restraint and other inhumane procedures. PCRM’s petition points out that Bergman’s radiation experiments will violate the standards of the Sundowner Report, a landmark 1996 NASA document that requires researchers to respect living creatures and to consider the full range of societal good that may come from an experiment. Additionally, nonanimal methods should be used whenever possible.


PCRM Online, February 2010

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