San Antonio’s Planet of the Apes

They finally found Bigfoot. Formerly the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research (SFBR), the Texas Biomedical Research Institute (TBRI) is a strange and secretive primate-focused maximum containment lab on San Antonio’s west side.

The Texas Biomedical Research Institute (TBRI) is a strange and secretive institution whose large, roughly triangular facility sits at a major intersection on San Antonio’s I-410 highway loop. The folks buttering their cornbread and sipping sweet tea across the road at Cracker Barrel probably have little idea what happens there, and that’s a good thing for appetites.

The fences that ring TBRI are unlike those at San Antonio’s many military installations. Rather than keeping intruders out, the ring around TBRI is primarily to keep the inhabitants in. Specifically, about 2500 primates, including more than 50 chimpanzees and the world’s largest colony of captive baboons, who are probably pretty pissed off about what is done to them in TBRI’s labs, which include one of the nation’s maximium containment biosafety level four (BSL-4) facilities.

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Good Minutes and Bad “Minutes”

Grab one of these before heading to Northwestern…

The quality of biosafety committee meeting minutes ranges from being quite good (rare) to abysmal (not so rare). In future posts at this website, I will make reference to the quality of disclosure by IBCs in their minutes and other records.

So here at the outset it’s a good time to discuss what IBC minutes should and shouldn’t be. To do that, today’s victims are the University of Texas at Austin and Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.

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Doing it Wrongly: The University of Tennessee

The University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis doesn’t want you to be able to read its laboratory safety records.

Some universities try to use state laws to prevent release of records under the federal NIH Guidelines. This problem most frequently occurs in states with lousy open records rules. The worse the state law, the more likely the university will try to use it against requests for IBC records.

But state laws have nothing to do with the NIH Guidelines and cannot be used to undermine the Public Access Provisions. That doesn’t stop the universities from trying, however, and they are effectively encouraged to do so because of the NIH Office of Science Policy’s (OSP) extreme reluctance to enforce its own rules.

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The Public Access Provisions from 1978 to 2020

The muckety mucks at NIH, here meeting in late 1977, were quite clear about what kinds of records Institutional Biosafety Committees are required to release to the public. God bless them. (National Library of Medicine)

The Public Access Provisions of the NIH Guidelines, as they apply to records, are short and simple. Consisting of a single paragraph, they say that Institutional Biosafety Committees (IBCs) must release to the public their meeting minutes and all other related records that their funders are required to release. Like so:

Upon request, the institution shall make available to the public all Institutional Biosafety Committee meeting minutes and any documents submitted to or received from funding agencies which the latter are required to make available to the public. If public comments are made on Institutional Biosafety Committee actions, the institution shall forward both the public comments and the Institutional Biosafety Committee’s response to the Office of Science Policy, National Institutes of Health ...
– NIH Guidelines at Section IV-B-2-a-(7)

In simple terms, what this obviously means is that, in addition to minutes, if the institution holds other records* related to rDNA research that can be obtained from a government agency under the Freedom of Information Act (or other law), then the IBC has to release those records on request. And that such records exist is effectively always the case, because nobody gets a federal grant or contract without paperwork.

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