A nonprofit group that promotes animal rights in medical research has taken issue with a NASA grant funding an assessment of the long-term effects of radiation on monkeys. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), based in Washington, D.C., sent an appeal Thursday to NASA administrator Charles Bolden, urging that the radiobiology study, intended to test the effects of radiation encountered in long-range spaceflight, be suspended.

The research project, led by Jack Bergman of McLean Hospital, a Harvard Medical School affiliate in Belmont, Mass., was one of 12 awarded radiobiology research grants through NASA's Human Research Program, the space agency announced October 27. In Bergman's study, according to Discovery News, 18 to 28 squirrel monkeys would be subjected to radiation and periodically tested to gauge how exposure affects performance in a variety of learned tasks. Stellar and galactic radiation would bombard astronauts on missions to Mars, but the health effects of such a trip are not well known.

Such an experiment, the PCRM quipped in the petition to Bolden, "would be one giant leap backward for NASA." Calling the proposal "unnecessary" and "cruel," the organization maintains that Bergman's research would violate NASA's stated principles regarding animal ethics. That policy, established in 1996, asserts that "the minimization of distress, pain and suffering is a moral imperative" and emphasizes that experimenters must weigh the burdens of animal subjects against potential societal benefits.

The PCRM sees little benefit to humankind in an environment where lofty spaceflight goals are banging against harsh economic and political realities. "Interplanetary human travel is, at best, a highly speculative aim for the foreseeable future," the organization's appeal states. "To put animals through radiation tests now in anticipation of such an enterprise is in no way justified."

Bergman, for his part, begs to differ. "There's a long-standing commitment on the part of NASA to deep space travel, and with that commitment comes a need for knowing what kinds of adverse effects deep space travel might have, what are the risks to astronauts," Bergman told Discovery News. "That's not been well assessed."

Photo of squirrel monkey: Luc Viatour via Wikimedia Commons