Kyoto University plans to scale back celebrated primate research programs

Kyoto University yesterday unveiled plans for its primate research programs in the wake of a scandal at the Primate Research Institute (PRI), which allegedly mishandled funds for an elaborate enclosure to house 12 chimpanzees. PRI will effectively disappear, and its successor will be downgraded from an institute to a center. Fieldwork will likely be de-emphasized, and certain lines of research will be abandoned.

Although it’s not the abrupt and complete closure some had anticipated, scientists both on the staff and around the world fear the successor to PRI will be a shadow of the former institute, which made groundbreaking discoveries about primate cognition. “I am sure that this will reduce the uniqueness of PRI; it’s a shame,” says Nobuyuki Kutsukake, a specialist in animal behavior at the Graduate University for Advanced Studies in Hayama, Japan.

University and national investigations completed in 2020 reported inappropriate handling of 1.1 billion yen ($9.7 million) in funds to upgrade chimpanzee enclosures at the PRI campus in Inuyama and at the university’s Wildlife Research Center in Kumamoto, on the southern island of Kyushu, which houses chimps and bonobos released from biomedical research. The probes concluded that none of the money was diverted for personal use or to other projects. Still, in November 2020, the university dismissed PRI’s director, noted primatologist Tetsuro Matsuzawa, and disciplined other researchers and officials.

At a press conference yesterday evening, Kyoto University President Nagahiro Minato suggested responsibility for the problems with the cage projects went beyond Matsuzawa. “Despite a major scandal being in progress, none of the institute’s labs raised an alarm or took action. There may have been a problem with the organizational structure and operation of the entire institute,” Minato said.

According to a one-page diagram outlining the restructuring, PRI will be replaced by a tentatively named Human Behavior Evolution Research Center that will manage PRI’s campus in Inuyama, its laboratories, and primate facilities. Research groups, while still being based in Inuyama, will become affiliated with various other university departments and institutes. Two lines of research will be ended: language and intelligence, once headed by Matsuzawa, and cognition and learning, led by Nobuo Masataka, a now-retired cognitive neuroscientist who fabricated data in four papers published between 2014 and 2019, according to a recently concluded investigation. It is not clear what will happen to the 12 chimpanzees and dozens of monkeys PRI now houses.

A university source familiar with PRI who spoke on condition of anonymity expects little immediate impact on day-to-day research, but has long-term concerns. Funding, much of which now comes through PRI, might be the first thing to be squeezed. And positions are likely to be eliminated as researchers retire. “It will be a war of attrition as [PRI] gets smaller and smaller,” says the source, who also worries about the loss of a unified organization to blend fieldwork, observations of captive primates, and laboratory studies, as PRI did. “I don’t think the people making the decisions are aware of PRI’s impact globally and how that will change,” the source says.

Others are concerned as well. An online petition calling on Kyoto University to “withdraw its plan to dismantle the Primate Research Institute,” launched 2 days ago by retired primatologist Suehisa Kuroda and others, has drawn more than 900 signatures; an English version has attracted more than 300.

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